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 fa├žade 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

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