Thursday, May 26, 2011

Days 6-7: Finding Shangri-la

WEDNESDAY, April 27 - THURSDAY, April 28

Shangri-la: Where the air is thin, the mountains are beautiful and the tourist attractions are just above average. Granted, I was only in Shangri-la for two days, and what I did see was amazing, but not as amazing as other travelers had made it seem. The important part about visiting this part of Yunnan was to see Tibetan culture.

Although located outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, Shangri-la lies on the Tibetan Plateau, ergo the influence of Tibetan culture in this part of Yunnan. At 3,300 meters (about 10,827 feet) above sea level, a quick walk up even the smallest of hills in Shangri-la left me winded.

What's even more interesting than the fact that I didn't even feel like I was in Yunnan anymore -- gone were the jungles; gone were the gorges -- was that this city and area haven't always been called Shangri-la. Up until about a decade ago, it was Zhongdian. To capitalize on that magnetic effect naming a town or region after a famous fictional locale – in this case, British novelist James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” -- has on tourists, the Chinese Government changed the city’s name to Shangri-la (San-ge-li-la in Chinese) in 2001. And it worked – Shangri-la has seen a tourist and backpacker boom in recent years, especially for those who can’t afford an actual trip to Tibet.

Yunnan isn’t alone in claiming that its Shangri-la is the Shangri-la. Authorities in Pakistan, Tibet, other Chinese provinces, and just about anywhere in the Himalayan region say this mythical city of everlasting youth is within their borders.

Whatever you want to call it, I was here to see Tibetans and enjoy the local cuisine: yak dumplings, yak kebabs, yak steak, yak cetera.

TIBETAN RETREAT: To get a nice panoramic view of the city, Layla, my travel companion, and I had to hike up a small hill not far from our guesthouse in Shangri-la’s Old City. Nestled between small, barren hills, Shangri-la looked like an oasis of civilization among desolate surroundings. Larger mountains loomed off in the distance. The sun was hidden behind a sea of clouds. The air was cool, if a bit thin, because of Shangri-la’s altitude, which made it both enjoyable and cumbersome while hiking. The city’s old town stood out from the modernized sections, the taller buildings of new overlooking the cozy village of old.

BLOWING IN THE WIND: At the top of the hill, hundreds of ropes with rainbow colored flags blew in the wind. The flags are used to bless a certain area. Each flag bears an inscription, which the Tibetans believe will be carried away by the winds to spread peace and good fortune. They’re commonly found around religious sites – sure enough, our flags led us to a temple. The smell of incense was also a dead giveaway.

THESE ANCIENT STREETS: The old city was busy with people, but mostly locals. Foreigners were few. Layla and I found a nice Tibetan restaurant – with a sign that announced “Tibetan food here!” – and I enjoyed some good Tibetan beer, which was much better than the Mekong beer from Jinghong, and yak a le everything (as described before) with noodles or rice. The Tibetans obsession with yak meat reminded me of Xinjiang, where all dishes include mutton cooked one way or another. I also have to laugh at the Chinese word for yak, maoniu, which means “hairy cow.”

DANCING THE EVENING AWAY: At 5 o’clock every evening, the locals of the old city get together in one of the city squares and perform a few traditional Tibetan dances. Audience participation was encouraged.

OLD TRADITION: The old city was nice for shopping – I picked up a few bags of yak jerky for my colleagues in Beijing – and people watching, especially the old ladies dancing in the square (pictured above), but Layla and I wanted to see some of the outlying areas where authentic Tibetan culture was almost certainly rife. We found a small travel group and hired a guide to take us on a culture themed trek to some villages and a temple outside Shangri-la.

WICKED SPIRITS NOT WELCOME HERE: The first Tibetan structure we ran into was a stupa, an all-white, man-made construction that looked like a swirly ice cream, on top of a small hill. Stupas, our guide said, are built to ward off evil spirits. If a disaster occurs somewhere – in the case of the stupa before us, there was a mudslide a few years ago that killed some people – a stupa is built to deter evil spirits from returning and causing similar destruction.

BIG MISTAKE: About 10 minutes into the hike, Layla and I, already wheezing and panting due to the thinner air of Shangri-la which makes physical activities exponentially more difficult, looked at each other, our thoughts aligning: Why the hell had we picked another trek after finishing the Tiger Leaping Gorge the day before? Surely this could have been done by bus or cab, but maybe the thin air had made us a bit light headed when we paid the travel guide before venturing out.

YAK, YAK, YAK: We walked on through hills and valleys, all void of any green life aside from a few shrubs. A few times, a random yak would stumble onto our path and grunt a few times at us. We must have been intruding on his turf. We passed small farming villages, although I couldn’t tell what was being farmed given the desolate terrain.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME: We took a pit stop in village not far from the temple to have yak butter tea and yak milk cheese. Although my stomach churned at the very mention of these local “delicacies,” I knew declining the food and beverage would be rude. I was also interested in seeing the inside of one of the houses and meet a Tibetan family.

ONE COW TOWN: At the two villages we passed through, there were more farm animals around than people.

THE SIMPLE LIFE: It took a while, but our guide finally found a family willing to allow foreigners into their house. Like the landscape outside, there wasn’t much to the house’s interior. There was one room with a large wooden pole in the middle. The floors, also wood, were uncarpeted. A large cast iron stove sat in the corner with two wooden benches. And that was about it. A TV that was almost definitely too old to work, and certainly black and white.

HUMBLE HOSTS: The Tibetan family, three women (the eldest pictured above) and a newborn child, rolled out their best wooden couch mats for us to sit on. A few neighbors (the younger woman in the photo) stopped by to see these foreign oddities who were so interested in walking from Shangri-la to see their small village. They served us yak butter milk tea and yak cheese, which I nibbled sparingly. I held the tea cup in my hands, moving it to my mouth every so often to create the facade of drinking. I smiled frequently. The Tibetans didn’t smile back. I felt invasive, but this was part of the tour package we’d paid for, so I sat contently.

SCORCHED SKIN: When we finally left the house, my face had started to hurt. An after effect of the yak cheese? Unlikely. It must be sunburn, but to what extent I didn’t know. Later, when I looked at photos I noticed my face was beet red. The sun hadn’t been shining that day, but I thought back to a few guide reviews. Sunscreen had been recommended because of Shangri-la’s altitude, which has an effect on the sun’s intensity since the ozone is apparently thinner. That would explain why most Tibetans are an earthen brown: their skin has been permanently tanned by the unrelenting sun.

PIGGING OUT: This shot caught my eye – a herd (is that the right term?) of hogs lying out in one of the pastures near our temple destination. I’ve only even seen these creatures in pens, never freely roaming about like other farm animals. Only in Shangri-la.

ALLEGEDLY FAMOUS: This “famous” temple we had been trekking to turned out to be a complete bust of a tourist spot. We’d been warned that it was being renovated, not that it was being completely reconstructed. The temple had no roof, three walls and didn’t really look like a former temple at all. And, of course, there were pigs wandering around inside. For the rest of my life I will remember Shangri-la, not for its beauty and simplicity or the Tibetan culture, but as that place, that one place, where hogs roam free.

SIGHTSEEING REDEMPTION: Our travels in Shangri-la were redeemed after we stopped at the Songzanlin monastery, the largest of its kind in Yunnan, on our way back into the city.

MONKS IN TRAINING: At its most prosperous time, the monastery was home to more than 3,000 monks. Today, there far fewer.

LIMITED PHOTO OPS: Taking photos in many parts of the monastery was off limits, especially since Songzanlin is still an active place of worship and Buddhist monk training.

TEMPLE HERE, TEMPLE THERE: Two main worship halls featured massive Buddha statues and the portraits of famous Buddhist monks. Each had a façade with beautiful white stone and red brick and bronze roofs; a giant tapestry hung at the entrance with different characters woven into the fabric.

LIKE TIBET, BUT DIFFERENT: Songzanlin monastery resembles the famous Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and houses many Buddhist and Tibetan treasures, hundreds of small gold statues of the Buddha among the main attractions.

BEWARE OF BUDDHAS: I’m a firm believer in not messing around with powers I have no understanding of, so needless to say I did not harm any Buddhas while in Shangri-la

Friday, May 20, 2011

Days 4-5: Tiger Leaping Gorge

MONDAY, April 25- TUESDAY, April 26

There’s been few times in my life where I’ve actually had my breath taken away (Yes, I am succumbing to a cliché for this case). Standing atop a rock formation jutting out into the Tiger Leaping Gorge, with a view up and down the length of the vast chasm, was one of those instances. Maybe it was the scenery, the sun setting over an awe-inspiring landscape on loan from heaven, or maybe it was the fact that I’d been trekking for the better part of day – either way, the air in my lungs had been temporarily stolen from me. Then out came my camera and roughly 50 shots later I was ready to move on.

LEGENDARY BEAST: The Tiger Leaping Gorge, located in China’s northwest Yunnan, is a backpacker’s dreamland. One of the deepest river canyons in the world, the gorge is 14 miles of green hills, snowcapped mountains and rugged paths, with rugged trails, cozy villages and waterfalls along the way. The gorge gets its name from a legendary tiger that, while evading hunters, jumped over the gorge at its narrowest point, which is about 100 feet.

VALLEY VILLAGES: Trekking the gorge at an enjoyable pace, if you like stopping to smell the cherry blossom flowers or visit each village, can take up to three days. Layla, my travel companion, and I would only be spending two days in the gorge at a much less leisurely walking pace. We’d leave our guesthouse in Lijiang early in the morning, arrive at a base town two hours later and begin the trek by about noon.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS: But like all things in China – chaotic and disorganized – our plan quickly fell apart due to a lack of buses, a lack of bus tickets and a lack of signs at the bus station. When we finally arrived at the base town it was pushing 2 in the afternoon. We finally got trekking around 3 p.m. after checking our larger bags at a nearby hostel. We’ll just have to walk faster, Layla and I agreed. That was a mistake.

OVERESTIMATED, BIG TIME: We started out strong, walking confidently toward the gorge on relatively stable terrain, but once we hit dirt trails and had to maneuver over boulders our pace slowed with each step. The second biggest problem was ourselves: we’d misjudged our physical capabilities since neither of us was in trekking shape. At this rate, and with my frequent breaks to stop and photograph everything around me, we wouldn’t make it to the gorge’s peak before sunset, let alone the village and guesthouses an hour beyond that. Trekking at night was out of the question. One wrong step in the dark could send us over a cliff – and then who would update this blog? Lucky for us, the cavalry was about to arrive.

RUGGED TRAILS ROLL ON AND ON: Since leaving the town at the bottom of the gorge, two men on horseback (or maybe they were mules) had followed us. They had offered to take us to the peak, for a fee but on horseback it would only take about two hours. We wanted to walk the “real way” and said no thanks.

OUR FOUR-LEGGED SHADOWS: But the duo followed anyway. Their horses were equipped with small bells on each saddle. As we went up steep hills, the bells would jingle; as we traversed rocky terrain, more jingling. There was, literally, jingling all the way as we made our way through the gorge. Jingle, jingle, jingle – it was the sound of our salvation. After about two hours of hiking on our own, and now covered in sweat and through half our water supply, we had a change of heart.

ON HORSEBACK, TIGER GORGE NOT SO HARD: Once on horseback with the two horsemen now guiding each animal on foot, we reached the peak in about two hours (it probably would have taken four or five hours otherwise), shot off another hundred photos, and made it to the village as the sun retreated behind the snow-covered peaks nearby.

On the way up to the peak, out of curiosity and now feeling like an epic failure of a traveler, I asked our guides how many times they made this trek each week. If there were travelers, one of them said, sometimes every day. Then he pulled out a cigarette, his third of the day, and lit up before pulling on the horse’s reins to move on. That’s a helluva cardio workout, I thought to myself.

RISE AND SHINE: The next morning we got up early before the afternoon heat could slow us down again. A mostly downhill trek, the second half was much easier. Since we didn’t have to rush, we were able to stop and enjoy the scenery around us.

THE PEOPLE AT WORK: Along the trail, people were busy harvesting wheat and other crops. Flowers were in bloom.

CURIOUS OBSERVER: At each sleepy town we passed we were greeted by a few farm animals, mostly chickens and horses, wandering around unattended to.

REFRESHING DISTRACTION: We passed a waterfall whose waters flowed over the path and into a ravine. The slippery rocks made it difficult to pass, but the cool waters were a nice refresher to keep us going.

MAYBE NEXT TIME: On the opposite side of the gorge was the Snow Dragon mountain. This part of the gorge was much less accessible than the side we were on.

ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE: Three hours later, we reached the main road through the gorge and were reconnected with civilization. A group of foreigners were trying to get a bus back to a nearby town and we decided to hitch a ride too.

IMPRESSIVE, MOST IMPRESSIVE: While a tourist hotspot, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is by no means touristy. True, there was a toll to pay before entering the gorge and the two prime photo spots were guarded by aged locals who demanded a fee of about $2 per person, but the natural beauty and lack of Chinese tour buses compensated for the few minor inconveniences of the trip.

R&R: The journey through the gorge is a great place to do some soul searching, even if you think you haven’t lost yours. Stuck out there among the trees, blowing wind and winding trails had a rejuvenating effect on me. While physically exhausting, at the end of our first day I felt relaxed and comfortable, perhaps enjoying a nice hiker’s high. I slept soundly and woke up re-energized to finish the trek.

LONG WAY DOWN: Yes, the trek was fun, but the Tiger Leaping Gorge is no joke. Certain points in the trail were as narrow as three feet with a sharp drop off waiting to one side. Each year, a dozen travelers die while hiking here, but it’s easy to see why. There are just way too many spots that, while dangerous, would make for great new Facebook profile pics.

SO TOURISTY: But I couldn't resist a few of those "dangerous" shots myself.

THE WIRES: The only annoyance was wires reaching across various sections of the gorge (note the wire in the upper left hand corner of this photo). These villages may have been small and isolated but were by no means completely disconnected from the outside world. The cables ruined a few too many of my shots and I had to maneuver myself into better photographic positions without falling off the sides of cliffs.

SECOND BEST: As an added bonus, I got to see the second bend of the Yangtze River during the trek. The second bend -- not as exciting or interesting as the first bend, but just as brown.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Evening, Day 3: Passing Through Lijiang

SUNDAY, April 24

The next leg of our trip would have Layla and me dropping into a few places in northwest Yunnan. To get there we'd have to take a plane -- a bus would take about a day and after our experience on the night bus from Kunming to Jinghong we wanted to expedite the whole traveling from A to B process. We also wanted to get away from Jinghong as quickly as possible.

As we flew into Lijiang I saw trails of lights from the air. It looked like the airport but we were still too high up to make a proper landing. On the ride into the city I saw what they were: it was a highway, with tall lightpoles running down each side for miles and miles. Our driver said the government was pouring millions, if not billions, of RMB into the city to bring it up to speed with other parts of China. One day there would be highrises and houses, malls and other department stores. But for now, there was only lights.

The ride to Lijiang's old city took the better part of an hour. The airport was built way out in the boonies and to get to our hostel we had to drive over barely paved roads, then pure dirt roads. Reminded me of off roading back in Pennsylvania's Coal Region, except slightly less comfortable since my ride was a low riding cab instead of a Jeep Wrangler.

Like most cities in China, Lijiang has an "old" city. I'm sure at one point it was a nice, peaceful little place, but now it's full of hostels, bars and tourists looking to spend money on local knick knacks.

Since we were just passing through, we didn't have time, or space in our bags, to fill up on LIjiang snacks and whatnot. The next day we'd be heading to the Tiger Leaping Gorge north of the old city.