Zhongdian / 'Shangri-La' : Welcome to Tibet.

Shangri-La Travel Blog

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The Gang and I arrived in somnolent Zhongdian ( ‘Shangri-La’ ) late afternoon yesterday.  A good time to do so as the perfect pitch of ochre gold that the sun shines this time of day flooded through and over the cobbled streets of the ‘Old Town’ like a gentle glittering river.  Perfect for tired eyes and trek weary limbs.  These evening colours found their perfect home caught up in the beautiful flowing fur mane of Fifi the gentle, adorable Golden Retriever owned by the friendly, softly-spoken proprietress of Harmony Guest House tucked at the top of a slanting cobbled street that would be just as at home in an old Hovis Bread commercial as here within the cultural borderlands of real Tibetan China.

Stevie, V, Emmy and Fifi (all of which rhyme! :) [Photo kindly provided by Nick]

On this latter point - the dividing line between predominantly Han China and its Tibetan populace and boundaries - of course there is much debate.  By the time you reach Zhongdian (renamed very successfully ‘Shangri-La’ by the Chinese government in an attempt to stimulate tourism through the mystique imparted by such a name) you are firmly in Tibetan cultural territory.  From here on in and further to the northwest (Deqin, Yubeng etc…) I am told ethnicity sits at 80% Tibetan origin.  In the custom, dress and religious and cultural trappings and structures of this hill-plains town this comes across fairly clearly. 

White-washed stupas populate the landscape with their obligatory rainbow coats of Buddhist prayer flags like so many multi-coloured mushrooms.

Shangri-La kidz are cute!!!
  Wood-beamed hay ricks and yaks accompany them casting their long shadows on the plains.  The large, impressive and often beautifully presented Tibetan homes with their slightly angled shining white plaster and mud walls and brightly coloured and carved doorways and window frames stand defiant on the landscape.  Prayer wheels abound and can often be spotted in the most curious of places.  Sat amidst the old-style wooden buildings of the tourism co-opted ‘Old Town’ is a small Tibetan Buddhist monastery on a rise which houses what must be one of the largest prayer wheels in the world!  I mean seriously this gigantic golden cylinder takes at least two strong people (and good shoe grip!) to begin to get it budging in the slightest.  Or you could do like Stevie and sit on the iron, colour-ribboned grip bars waiting for everyone else to give you a ride.
Stevie & the Prayer Wheel.
  “Hey, I’m mostly respectful most of the time okay!”.

After our two days of trekking in Tiger Leaping Gorge it is a time for Nick, Vanesha, Emmy and I to relax and unwind a little.  To let our muscles recover whilst doing little that’s more stressful than stroking Fifi, reading books and strolling the small cobbled area of the more ethnically ‘preserved’ Old Town away from the newer, uglier, predominantly Han Chinese city-scape that concrete-creeps further out into the valley and modernity beyond. 

The main sight or activity in the area of Zhongdian is the large, 300 year old  ‘Ganden Sumtseling Gompa’.

  Situated several kilometres north of New Town Zhongdian in its own valley recess, this Tibetan Monastery (apparently the most revered in South-West China) sits with its gold-gilded roofs glinting in the sun housing upwards of 600 monks.  Although old in provenance, it is largely a reconstruction as it was practically demolished by the People’s Liberation Army in 1959.  Re-opened in 1981 my pal’s Guide informs me.

Here we go again.  Yes, another wallet-wounding entrance fee.  Once you take the number 3 bus outta town (1RMB) you will be deposited at a large Cultural Centre/ Ticket Office building and asked to purchase your entrance for 85RMB ($12.50).  This though, as with Black Dragon Pool in Lijiang is one of China’s more easily avoidable entrance fees.

Novice boy washes pots and frowns.
  Me and the crew act dumb and double-back outta the compound.  A brief loop back along a couple of side roads and a stroll up into the hills gets you far away and past the ticket building (this itself sits 1-2km south of the Monastery complex) and also wins you a fabulous walk through the valley hills and Tibetan villages that you otherwise would never have experienced.

Sat on high, chillaxing to the max, with our wallets none-the-lighter the Four Amigos sit and take in the beautiful view on this prosaic, hot pre-summers day with the butterflies and birds joining us in observing the Monastery and its golden roofs in the distance.  Traipsing down and through a Tibetan village with all its grand and pretty homes we are accosted by a large gaggle of kids playing basketball who down tools to come and examine these strange specimens walking through their home.

  My ‘boobs’ are repeatedly pinched, tweaked and fervently groped by the girls and boys alike (ladies I begin to have the faintest glimmer of empathy for how ya feel) and the hairiness of Nick and I’s forearms are likewise a source of much mystery, amusement and alarm.  Furry monsters in their midst.  The scene draws to a close after Emmy accidentally hurtles a basketball into a young girls face.  She covers herself tearfully and her body language is most unforgiving.  We move on!

Entering the Monastery surreptitiously through a side gate we have a pleasant hour or so admiring the elaborate ‘alter’ decorations and statuary of the various main worship chambers.  The main building houses frankly the most spectacularly detailed and impressive ‘golden’ Buddha that I have seen since my visit to Wat Pho in Bangkok.

  Giant flaming sword held aloft and a dark, protective Garudha hovering above him, he cuts quite a frightening figure on this occasion.  The walls are painted in modern, but beautifully realised and coloured mural illustrations of the life and tales of Buddha.  Beautiful.  A small boy, robed in burnt burgundy cloth sits and washes small silvery tin pots outside and frowns at the vision of camera lenses.  Our viewing done, we stroll right out the front main gate (no ticket checkers here) and step on the No.3 bus right there.  1RMB ticket back to town and lunch in steamed dumpling heaven.

Although a valley city, Zhongdian sits at 3,200 metres above sea level ( 530 metres higher than the trek highpoint of Tiger Leaping Gorge) so can bring a chill of an evening after the late sunset has played out.

Wine makes for fine fun times :) [Photo kindly provided by Nick]
  This is no problem though.  The weather is marvellous whilst we’re here.  And besides, one of the greatest pleasures taken in our time in Zhongdian and at Harmony is to sit and sip our green teas and beers, whilst playing cards in the old-wooden comforts and cosiness of the lounge/bar area warmed by the wood-burning fire that casts its coppery-orange glow on our sleepy faces and surrounds.

On our final night here Nick and I hit-up the local supermarket for 3 bottles of local produce red wine.  Tomorrow we will part company with Vanesha and Emmy so a farewell drink or three is in order.  This is my first red wine - one of the pleasures I so miss of Home and near always deny myself whilst on The Road - since being sat in the cold, dirty spare room above a petrol station in the Jordanian desert where friends Thu and Johanna shared a half bottle of ‘Holy Land’ wine with me.  It all goes down a treat.  I hope the likes of V and Emmy soon again to meet.

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Stevie, V, Emmy and Fifi (all of w…
Stevie, V, Emmy and Fifi (all of …
Shangri-La kidz are cute!!!
Shangri-La kidz are cute!!!
Stevie & the Prayer Wheel.
Stevie & the Prayer Wheel.
Novice boy washes pots and frowns.
Novice boy washes pots and frowns.
Wine makes for fine fun times :)  …
Wine makes for fine fun times :) …
Stevie & V at our posh nosh breakf…
Stevie & V at our posh nosh break…
I apologise, but I do have a habit…
I apologise, but I do have a habi…
Hug the Prayer Wheel! :D [taken by…
Hug the Prayer Wheel! :D [taken b…
Ha Ba village set in the hills nea…
Ha Ba village set in the hills ne…
Ha Ba Snow Mountain, one of Yunn…
Ha Ba 'Snow Mountain', one of Yun…
Emmy & V warm their cockles by the…
Emmy & V warm their cockles by th…
Cobbled streets of Old Town Shan…
Cobbled streets of 'Old Town' Sha…
Strange Decor.
Strange Decor.
How much is that doggy on the roo…
"How much is that doggy on the ro…
Sewing in the streets.
Sewing in the streets.
Stevie & Fifi.
Stevie & Fifi.
Portrait and Blue.
Portrait and Blue.
The Tibetan Monastery in the dista…
The Tibetan Monastery in the dist…
Prayer flags and trees.
Prayer flags and trees.
Stevie & the prayer flags.
Stevie & the prayer flags.
Stevie & the Curiosity Kidz  [Phot…
Stevie & the Curiosity Kidz [Pho…
An ornate entrance to an unfinishe…
An ornate entrance to an unfinish…
Monastery roof corner.
Monastery roof corner.
Monastery windows.
Monastery windows.
Lion Statue (detail)
Lion Statue (detail)
Monastery windows and walls.
Monastery windows and walls.
The Buddha within.
The Buddha within.
Brightly coloured walls within the…
Brightly coloured walls within th…
Monk watches the giant prayer whee…
Monk watches the giant prayer whe…
The huge and hugely impressive pra…
The huge and hugely impressive pr…
V gives the prayer wheel some well…
V gives the prayer wheel some wel…
Random self-portrait.
Random self-portrait.
Stevie & Emmy and smiles.  [Photo …
Stevie & Emmy and smiles. [Photo…
Shangri-La
photo by: Stevie_Wes