Becoming Shangri-La Adventuriety

Our journey to Shangri-La began in Hutiaoxia or Tiger Leaping Gorge Town, where we pulled over in a busy parking area, hugged Denise good-bye and met Sarah amid cars honking and trying to back out of spaces and the couple that ran across the street to ask us about bus schedules and hiking…in Spanish.  Scott and the kids were able to not only have a conversation, but also recognized that they were from Spain by their accent.  It was a chaotic ten minutes but then we were on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge and the next part of our adventure.


Tiger Leaping Gorge is where the upper stretches of the Yangtze River (called the Jinsha River) carves one of the world’s deepest river canyons between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (we were on the other side in Lijiang) and Haba Snow Mountain.


The gorge gets its name from a local legend about a tiger that was being chased and leaped across the canyon by jumping on the rock in the middle of the river, called of course, Tiger Leaping Rock.


That’s us and Tiger Leaping Rock in the middle of the river.  As beautiful as the gorge it, it creates a problem for river transportation as it is considered non navigable.  The first and last time anyone passed through the gorge on a boat was the Chinese Yangtze River Rafting Team in 1986.  Two of the team members died.


In 2003, Tiger Leaping Gorge was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is a very touristy place, but absolutely worth the visit because although you are watching with the crowds, the water is so mesmerizing and the sound so completely deafening that you feel small and alone.  If you look at the shadow on the water the two people waving near the middle are Scott and I.


Sadly and what we observed as typical in the parts of China that we visited…not a lot of respect for nature.  This scene was quite a contrast to the week we spent in the Grand Canyon in May where you see nary a hint of a scrap of trash anywhere.


If you don’t feel like climbing up or down the steep steps (1000 total) you can always get a lift.  There are canisters of oxygen for sale too at the gift shop just in case.


This is looking downstream and on the left of the photo you can see the viewing decks.


We climbed back up the stairs, passing the girl in the palanquin and the people lounging on the stairs with their oxygen canisters and took one last look at the river traveling swiftly into the canyon.  Now we were on our way to Shangri-La!


We stopped here at a roadside stand to use the restroom, stretch our legs and admire the view.  A couple of things to mention…First of all, this area is all part of  Shangri-La County (according to China that is), but really Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton.  This place that Hilton writes about is heaven on earth and so the word Shangri-La has become synonymous with paradise. Interestingly, Hilton was writing his novel around the same time that Dr. Rock was researching, writing and photographing for National Geographic just 100 miles away in Lijiang (Being Dutch in Lijiang).  But back to business and the fact that paradise is great for tourism, especially if you shine it up a bit and so lots of places in the northwestern area of Yunnan Province claimed to be Hilton’s Shangri-La.  In 2001, the Tibet Autonomous Region proposed that the three regions, Yunnan, Tibet, and Sichuan  consolidate Shangri-La tourism resources and promote it as one place where the three provinces meet near Zhongdian (where we stayed). Consequently in 2001,  Zhongdian County in northwestern Yunnan officially renamed itself Shangri-La County.   Today, Zhongdian or Shangri-La is undergoing massive retrofitting and a high speed railway is being built alongside a new highway.  Construction will be finished in about five years.  We thought it was sad that this absolutely beautiful place would soon be inundated with tourism but the infrastructure will allow for tourism year round and the hope for better jobs is important to the people living in the area.


Regardless of the name of the area, it was gorgeous and the air was clean and cool.  Ironically, in screaming contrast was the restroom offered at this beautiful vista.  Ashley came back to get me because you had to pay to use the bathroom and so I went with her…the bathroom was a building of cinder blocks positioned on a slope (keep in mind that water runs down hill) and inside there were stalls made out of flimsy dividers with no doors.  The “toilets” were one concrete ditch that ran through all of the stalls (remember the slope of the building).  The smell was unbelievable and at that moment I longed for the luxury of a squat toilet!  It made the mountain air smell even better and the view, oh so refreshing.


We had eaten a late lunch and the day was getting very long (remember we had started with Denise in Lijiang hours before) and so we asked Sarah to take us to the grocery store for snacks instead of out to dinner.  The grocery store was an adventure in itself.


Zhongdian is still a small town in a small county of 130,000 people, but the one grocery store is big and offers a broad range of items for sale…clothes, perfume, dishes, you name it…a bit like Super Walmart.  The plan is for Zhongdian to grow rapidly (and it will with the railway and highway and new name) to accommodate the booming tourism that becoming Shangri-La will bring and so the town is a contrasting mix of the old, the newly built and a lot of construction.


We had a lot of fun looking at the very different food items.  Ashley was in love with the chunks of crystallized sugar displayed in bins.  I particularly thought the picture on the seasoning packet looked appetizing.


Veggies and milk were abundant, but we could not find simple sliced bread for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We did find the Tibetan barley alcohol after asking Sarah which local drink we should sample.


We left the grocery store and drove about ten minutes out of town to the Songtsam Retreat.  This is the view from our patio and it is what I will think of for the rest of my life when I think of Shangri-La for a few reasons which I will get to eventually in this blog but for now…it’s just pretty.


We ate peanut butter and jelly on sweet pancake type things, our answer to the bread that we couldn’t find and listened to the Tibetan chanting and singing in the distance.  The retreat was spread over the hillside and offered cultural activities every day.


We hiked a lot in Shangri-La.  This was by accident, but worked out perfectly.  Even though there are a lot of really interesting things to see in the area (Tiger Leaping Gorge, Stone Drum Town, Lijiang, First Bend of the Yangtze, to name a few that we saw) and the driving distances are not that great, the narrow,  winding roads and slow, plentiful  traffic add up to hours in the car.  We didn’t realize how many hours we had signed up for in this part of the trip until Sarah started listing hours in the car per day and so we cut one day of driving out, skipping the monkeys in the mountain (8 hours of driving!) and asked Sarah about hiking in Shangri-La instead.   Serendipitously, she was a hiker and knew all kinds of great trails. On our first day we were literally dropped off  on the side of the road with some sandwiches and up we climbed to a Tibetan Stupa covered in these prayer flags and a view of the outskirts of Zhongdian.


The area is famous for its wildflowers.  In fact, Kew Gardens in England sends seed collectors to the area each year.


You can see the Stupa  that we began our hike with in the distance.  A Stupa is an important and religiously symbolic monument honoring Buddha in Tibet and they are everywhere in different shapes and sizes. Buddhists always show their devotion by circling the Stupa clockwise.  I must mention that the weather was perfect for hiking.


There was some trash on the trail.  Maybe the hiker decided a mask wasn’t necessary in this fresh air.  We also saw a gravel quarry for all of the construction in progress.


It was mostly this though…gorgeous fields and meadows of wildflowers.


Interesting things like piles of rock erected by Tibetans and everyone else passing by called Ovoos, much like the Stupas, except you can add your own rock and a prayer.


Old farm houses


I never would have imagined this landscape in China.


There were mountains, valleys and fields of flowers.


We stopped for a snack under this frame (they are everywhere) used to dry the animal’s food like hay and barley after it is harvested.  Sarah shared her Yak jerky with us.


We were getting closer to Ringha Village and walked through another little Tibetan village which looked more like a few deserted farmhouses.


The region is inhabited by many different ethnic groups, with the Tibetans comprising the majority of the population and so there is a lot of  Tibetan culture to experience.   In ancient times, Zhongdian, together with Batang (in Tibet) and Litang (in Sichuan) was the fiefdom of three sons of a Tibetan King.


We saw many traditional Tibetan homes as we walked which are passed from one generation to the next, unlike the Han Chinese who only get single generation leases for their homes in the cities.  Because the houses stay in the family, the Tibetans take a lot of pride in continuously building and remodeling their homes.


There were basketball courts too in the Tibetan villages!


These curious children followed us the length of their property and then sat on a hill and watched us eat our lunch.  They started singing songs and Sarah explained they were from a newly released and very popular children’s movie. She was surprised that these kids were familiar with the songs. We clapped when they were finished and then Sarah took a package of crackers and walked over to where they were sitting and spoke to them for a while.  She came back and explained that their teacher had taught them the songs in the schools.  We finished up our lunch and sang a song for them before we continued our hike.  I asked Sarah what the flag meant on the children’s house because I had seen them occasionally on other houses in our travels.  She said it means that someone living in the house is a Communist Party member.


We hiked across open fields towards Ringha Village


Spent some time jumping a stream because it was fun.


We cautiously hurried by these big fellows called Dzo, a cross between cattle and yaks, who were much too aware of us for our comfort.


They were held captive on the bucolic pastureland by nasty looking fences.


After we made it safely past the bovines, we entered another pasture full of babies!  Our own babies could barely stand the cuteness that surrounded them.


Baby animals were everywhere…it was a little hard to believe.


We crossed the river and walked along a road and fields as we got closer to the village.


More drying racks in the fields await the harvest of hay and barley.


That’s Sarah, our tiny and fearless hiking leader with the pink backpack and an important picture so that you can understand why two little Tibetan girls thought some foreigners had taken her.


Another Stupa like the one we saw when we started our hike.


These fellows must be missing their friends back in the fields.  Tibetans do keep their animals close (especially in the winter) so maybe they’re just waiting by the door like dogs.


By the time we walked through Ringha Village it was early afternoon.  We passed some young girls playing outside their home and Sarah said hello to them in Tibetan.  It was obvious that the two girls were asking Sarah questions that were amusing her, but it wasn’t until we walked away that she was able to explain that the little girls asked her age and when she replied, the girls did not believe her.  The girls wanted to know why she was walking with foreigners.  They thought that she was a child and that we had taken her!


We squeezed through the gate and climbed the steep and sacred flag-strewn hillside to the Dabaosi.


The Dabaosi, also known as the monastery of the Five Wisdom Buddhas, attracts a regular stream of pilgrims bringing offerings and hanging prayer flags.


Ashley was having a great time communing with the “offerings,” live animals that the monks feed and take care of.


We arrived the same time as a family bringing a goat to offer.  The goat was making quite a ruckus as one of the men wrestled it into a clearing and another man began to pray over it as the family gathered around.  The goat was bleating and someone called for food to distract it while the prayer was being said.  Sarah motioned us over to watch and I thought, no way do I want to see this little guy sacrificed, and that was when she told us there was no killing, just praying, and then the animals were left to live with the monks.


This is a Tibetan Prayer Wheel or Mani Wheel at the Dabaosi.  Found all over Tibet and areas influenced by Tibetan culture, like Shangri-la.  They are used for spreading spiritual blessings and good fortune.  Rolls of thin paper imprinted with many copies of the mantra (prayer) Om Mani Padme Hum are wound around an axle inside the decorative cylinder so that the prayer can be spun around and around like repeating a mantra. There are many sizes, including hand-held versions that can be carried on pilgrimages and spun whenever possible.


We spent a couple of hours after our hike touring Zhongdian Old Town.  Notice the dogs in the center of the plaza?  You can pay to take your selfie with these Tibetan Mastiffs.  Also, see that giant gold cylinder on the hillside? That’s a prayer wheel too.


There was a terrible fire here in 2014 which destroyed much of the Old Town, but everything has already been rebuilt.  Two weeks in China and seeing so much old made new in the name of tourism is beginning to affect me and not in a good way.  Cynically, I imagine that this shiny new “Old Town” was only a matter of time, fire or not.  And if you’re really interested, I found the following article which pretty much sums it up…


We took another great hike literally out the door of our lodging the next day and noticed the Tibetan equivalent of a “summit cross”  as we climbed into the hills.  Can you see the little thing sticking up on top of the far hill?  Sarah, always a good sport and an excellent hiker, was happy to see a view new to her as well and so…up we went,


the fields of barley and mustard…


…and the village where we were staying, receding as we climbed.  Beautiful isn’t it?img_3919

We made it to the top and found the Tibetan Summit Stupa and a lot of prayer flags.  Prayer flags are truly beautiful as is their meaning and I found this really great article if you are interested.


The view was definitely worth the huffing and puffing.  I have yet to mention the fact that Zhongdian has an altitude of 10,367 feet and the Monastery sits at over 11,000 feet. The ironic thing here is that when one travels to parts of the globe like Cusco, Peru (11,152 feet) there is a lot of talk about the altitude; the importance of eating light and staying hydrated, the tea for altitude sickness and on and on…everywhere you go you are either cautioned or offered a remedy.  Not a word in this part of the world.  In fact, I didn’t even think about it really until I was feeling like I was hiking at altitude.


Our adventure to the summit prayer flags turned out better than expected as there was bushwhacking involved, a necessary ingredient for any good hike according to Scott,  and in true fashion, he was convinced he could find the trail going down the other side of the mountain…pretty sure I’ve heard that a few times before.


We eventually found our way off of the peak (without finding the “other” trail) and got back on track.  Sarah had taken this hike just a few days before and was very excited about the wild strawberries growing alongside the road.  Her enthusiasm was infectious and we spent a considerable amount of time gathering bouquets of berries.


They were tiny and a bit sour, but Sarah said they reminded her of her childhood and made her feel happy. Sarah had an amazing story that she shared with us after hearing Scott and the kids speaking Spanish  at Tiger Leaping Gorge.  She told us it was nice to hear Spanish again and then told us this story…

The village that she grew up in had a Catholic Mission that had been there for years and so most of Sarah’s village was Catholic.  Her name is actually Sarah, as opposed to being a chosen English name that tourists can pronounce.  Even though her family’s religion is Catholic, they still believe in the cultural practice of very young and arranged marriages and so Sarah was set to be married off at the age of fifteen.  Not long before she turned fifteen, a Spanish nun came to the mission and couldn’t stand the thought of the girls being married so young and so she convinced her religious community to sponsor three girls and offer them an education at a convent of their choice in Japan, China or the Philippines.

The girls chose Manila in the Philippines and took their first train ride and first plane ride on their very first trip anywhere to a new country, language and life.  Sarah said that by the time she arrived at the convent in Manila, she was sick of instant noodles (still can’t eat them) and knew two words of English, “okay” and “thank you.”  She said she cried all night for months and when she wasn’t crying, she was studying in order to communicate.  The other girls lasted about a year but Sarah spent four years with the nuns in Manila, returning home for her first visit two years after she had left and then coming home for good when her mom was ill two years after that.  She had learned English, got an education and had resolved to choose her own husband in her own time.

She’s now married now to a Han Chinese (another blow to her mother’s plans) and they have a four year old son.  Her husband works long hours at a local high school teaching advanced math and his mother cares for their little boy while Sarah works (which doesn’t make her mother-in-law happy, the work part anyway) as a tour guide during the summer.  Her husband even converted to Catholicism for the sake of their son and family unity.


We walked along this dirt road  for a long time enjoying the perfect weather and admiring the many wildflowers.


The dirt road turned back into a path (more like bushwhacking again) and we descended this crazy steep hillside with me far behind enjoying the view, cursing and taking pictures.


This is our view from the steep hillside. Our hike continued through the village to the highway on the  far side.


Traditional Tibetan home with glassed in yard for a little bit of “outside” during the harsh winters and a lot of firewood.


Another basketball court, enjoyed by youngsters and surrounded by brilliant blue flowers.


Scenes from the village…such a mix of old and new


We are almost to the highway on the other side of the village as we pass another Stupa.


We waited on the side of the busy highway for the van to come and find us and watched traffic whiz and sputter by.  It amazed me that Sarah and the driver could coordinate our moving around.  We really were getting dropped on the side one highway and picked up hours later on the side of another.


We chose to experience a traditional Tibetan meal for lunch one day and an experience it was.  Scott likes to call it the most difficult meal he’s ever had to get through as a married couple.


The food was plentiful and foreign in a challenging to eat way (yak fat, yak yogurt and buckwheat  bread) and Scott still had a very tender stomach after a hard and fast twenty-four hour “something.”  It was also very smokey in the room from the wood burning fire and lack of ventilation and the only thing to wash down lunch was Yak Butter Tea, that ‘s tea with yak butter mixed in…Yum! We did supplement with what little water we had left from the hike.


We were invited to look around.  The photo on the left is the attic where firewood is stored along with vegetables and other random things…kind of like the garage.  The photo on the right is the glassed in common area, a place to get outside in the harsh winter.


After we had escaped lunch, we toured the Songzanling Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan Province originally built from 1679-1681.  Supposedly, the Fifth Dalai Lama decided the location though divination and gave it the name Gedansongzanlin.   Although the Monastery was first built in the 17th century, it too was a casualty of the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in 1983.  And now in preparation of Shangri-La, it’s getting even shinier.  Some of the giant Buddhas inside the temples are only a few years old.


It was beautiful and interesting in the fact that it was evident monks lived and worked there (at its height there were 2,000 monks but now about 700).  There were monks sleeping in corners and makeshift kitchens in the temples.  It was very homey.


This sign makes a lot of good points.


And then we took a short cut through the living quarters of some of the monks and across a field.


Hey look…a marijuana plant!  This was not the first pot plant we had seen in Yunnan and we had asked Denise in Lijiang about it.  She told us that everyone in the area made tea from it and had used it that way for hundreds of years and then three years ago it became illegal and now it’s okay again.


We hiked along the hillside and back to our rooms to recover from hiking but mostly lunch.


So back to the view from our patio and the image that comes to mind when I think of Shangri-La…this was our vista.   So beautiful if you squint your eyes to blur out the crane that is rebuilding the Songzanling Monastery in the glory that the Chinese government believes befitting of Shangri-La.  So peaceful if you can ignore the beeping of the backhoes working at the monastery and in the village to make the roads better for tourism.  So China to think that old isn’t good or appealing enough to entice the tourists to come.

Listening to Sarah talk about her niece that is young, strong and because she is uneducated, carries 100 pound bags of concrete all day long for her good job, I can understand why it is important to build the roads, the railways and the shiny things to attract year-round tourism.  Yet, with its new name and new infrastructure it won’t be long until paradise is lost again.  If you go to Zhongdian, go soon and go hiking and find the wildflowers and the wild strawberries and the baby animals and the prayer flags high on a trail-less mountain…that Shangri-La will probably still be there.


Good-bye to our sweet guide Sarah!  Thank you for showing us paradise.




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