I named this post after a Tibetan-style song (pinyin: meili de xianggelila, Beautiful Shangri-La) which is currently very popular in Xining, western Sichuan, Yunnan, and pretty much anywhere else I’ve been where the government has been promoting some kind of ‘Shangri-La” tourist initiative, which these days seems to include most everywhere in Western China. However, it was not until recently that I came into the mythical land of the original Shangri-La, the ancient and mysterious paradise which so many have sought in vain, as discovered by the regional government in 2001 when a the name of a remote town in northern Yunnan was changed from 中甸 (zhongdian) to 香格里拉 (Shangri-La). Some say this was a bid to promote tourism, while others say that the surrounding spectacular scenery and bevy of attractions have merited the name change. Others have mentioned specific landscapes in the region which exactly resemble those illustrated in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, in which the concept of Shangri-La was invented. But for whatever reason, the name Shangri-La has captured the imagination of people around the world (particularly after two successful film adaptations) and, as such, has become a brand synonymous with exclusivity and big money (just look at the Shangri-La hotel chain). Especially alluring to the authorities in a beautiful but remote town on the southeastern Tibetan plateau. Just think: would you rather go to Shangri-La or a random podunk town called Zhongdian?
Driven forward by the spell of Shangri-La, I packed my bags and, as soon as the ViA conference in Hainan was over, fled the balmy climes and speedoed Russians of Sanya for Yunnan province. I was traveling with Kailah, a friend (and ViA volunteer) who apparently lives in Shangri-La and consequently assured me of its existence. We had a pleasant flight and, after less than two hours, touched down in Kunming.
Kunming is known as the “Spring City” for reasons which, after walking outside of the terminal, immediately became obvious. The weather is pretty much perfect all the time: cool at night pleasantly warm during the day; not too hot in the summer and not too cold in the winter. We spent our one full day in Kunming just walking around the city, enjoying the beautiful weather and the many parks and cafes. We wandered through markets where we came across goat cheese (!), a Yunnan specialty, and shops selling massive arrays of bongs – another Yunnan specialty. We wound through older traditional-esque districts and newly redone areas and an extremely fancy area near Yunnan University which was home to more foreigner-oriented cafes, bookstores, bars, and shops than I’ve seen almost anywhere in China. There was no specific highlight to the day; the city and the weather were the highlights, and we soaked them up all day long.
In the evening we went out for hotpot with some people staying at the hostel as well as my friend Kelly, who was in Xining for nearly a month. It was great to see Kelly and, though she was in the middle of a see-Yunnan-as-quickly-as-possible itinerary, to hear about her experiences. We eventually went to bed to prepare for the next day, which seemed likely to be a full travel day as we made our way to Shaxi.
And it was. After a quick stop at the market near the hostel, we took a bus out to Kunming’s West Bus Station, which was a scene of utter chaos. Because of the impending Chunjie (Spring Festival, aka Chinese New Year, aka everyone in China goes home to their families for up to 15 days), the station had put additional buses on every route but the place was still a bit chaotic. But as buses to Xiaguan (Dali city) left every 15 minutes, we quickly left the chaos behind and, soon enough, were sailing through the Yunnan countryside on a fast, smooth expressway.
After four hours coasting through pleasant (if not spectacular) scenery, we arrived in Dali to find that the ongoing bus we needed to catch left from a different bus station, necessitating a cross-town trip on the city bus through surprisingly awful traffic. After arriving at the North bus station we purchased bus tickets to our next destination (Jianchuan, 剑川) upon which were listed not only departure times but also a string of numbers and letters. We tried to confirm that our bus would leave at 4pm as listed on the ticket, but the attendants ignored our requests, repeatedly pointing to the string of numbers and telling us to talk to the drivers. We went outside to find a bus to Jianchuan ready and waiting and, although it was 20 minutes before the listed departure time, I assumed this would be our bus. We showed our tickets to the driver and tried to get on, but he angrily pointed at the mysterious codelike numbers and told us to find a bus “behind” where we were right now.
I went to the direction that seemed most like “behind” the waiting bus and found a plethora of buses to Jianchuan, all partially to nearly full of passengers, parked in the lot. I showed my ticket to another driver, who simply waved us away, and another, who said we weren’t on his bus either. Finally, I went up to a bus station attendant on the platform to ask why we couldn’t get on any of the buses.
“These numbers and letters are the license plate numbers of your bus,” she said. “You have to wait until this bus turns up, and then you can get on.”
We saw a number of buses to Jianchuan pull up and leave, but our bus didn’t make an appearance until 4:30 and, though full, didn’t pull out of the station until 4:45. We asked our driver to drop us off at the turnoff to Shaxi (close to Jianchuan) and he grumpily nodded his head. That was about the most response we got from him all trip.
The bus ride was beautiful but EXTREMELY slow. We cruised along to the north of Dali, admiring the views of Erhai Hu (lake) below and the Cang Shan (mountains) looming above, before the road turned up a narrow gorge and came out into a large valley of rice, rapeseed, and wheat fields. Though we were on the national highway 214 (which, a road sign listed, would take you to Xining in no less than 2290 kilometers), the road was narrow and potholed and we jolted slowly along the bumpy surface, stopping continually for slower vehicles and getting caught in a number of traffic jams. The worst was in the strangely named town of 牛街 (Cow Street), where we got stuck in an unmoving line of cars for more than an hour – for no apparent reason other than the narrowness of the road through town and a number of street stalls which exacerbated the narrowness to the point that only one line of cars could pass though at a time. By the time we passed through 牛街, it was completely dark and we started to worry that we wouldn’t be able to find a car for the final 30-minute ride to Shaxi.
Our bus climbed over a mountain pass and gradually descended to an open valley (or so it looked in the dark). Suddenly, at a crossroads, the driver opened the door to the bus and (actually) talked to us.
“Here’s the turnoff to Shaxi. Get out of the bus.”
I looked around the intersection for cars which might be making the short trip to town, but saw none. “Do you think there are any cars this late?” I asked the driver.
“No,” he said. “But here’s the turnoff, so you should get out here.”
“If there’s no cars, then we’ll go all the way to Jianchuan,” I said, eager not to be stuck at a random rural intersection for the night.
“You have to pay then,” he said.
“Why? Our tickets are for Jianchuan!”
The driver looked at the ticket I was offering and, grumbling at his inability to bilk the foreigners for any more money, started the bus back up for the short remaining trip.
In Jianchuan we were immediately accosted by a van driver who wanted multiple hundreds of kuai for the short trip to Shaxi. We declined him and found another van waiting in front of the bus station that offered us a much more reasonable, though still inflated, price (30 kuai/person). We hopped in and, after 30 minutes driving through the dark on winding narrow roads, finally arrived in Shaxi. It was 10pm.
A guy from the hostel walked us from the van dropoff to the inn, which is located on the old town square. The hostel is a converted horse stable and has a variety of rooms (from 8-bed dorms to deluxe singles) surrounding a peaceful courtyard. While not full, there were plenty of other people staying at the hostel, most of whom we met later that evening for endless rounds of Uno, Chinese style (the Chinese version of Uno is more competitive and interesting than the American way of playing the game) before crashing into our comfortable beds.
The next day was Friday, the weekly market day in Shaxi. Before I had come, I had worried that the famous Friday market would have become, as the town becomes better known by travelers, something put on for tourists more than for locals. As other towns in north west Yunnan have become touristified beyond belief (see Lijiang), many independent travelers have begun searching for other hangouts – and Shaxi has become one of these still-but-not-for-long-under-the-radar kinds of places. The town, by the way, is famous as a perfectly preserved old caravan stopover on the ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道, aka the southern silk road) which connected China with Burma, India, Tibet, and the middle east via Yunnan’s mountains. The old town is not only full of ancient architecture, but much of the architecture has been left in its current condition (e.g. not over-renovated) and – what’s more – the place is still inhabited and feels alive. Shaxi is not some fake new-old neighborhood with streets lined with souvenir shops; though there are increasing numbers of small inns and cafes serving western food, the vast majority of houses are home to local families and the shops still cater to the needs of the local population. Hopefully this will not change.
Anyway, Shaxi’s market blew my worries away. Around mid-morning, the otherwise somnolent town was invaded by vast streams of people and animals coming from all directions for the market. And what a market it was: the entire length of the main street was jam packed with people selling everything from fungus to live animals to produce to household supplies to cheese to grubs to candy to clothing and pretty much anything else you’d ever need, or anything you might ever think of. The stalls were entertaining, but so were the people themselves, a mix of Bai, Lisu, Naxi, and other minorities wearing their native dress crowded the market and filled it with color. We spent hours wandering around, buying things that we’ve been needing, and simply admiring the show. Finally, in the afternoon, we wandered back to the hostel to relax a bit.
I went for a beautiful run in the late afternoon over an ancient humpbacked bridge and up a smoothly cobblestoned old road that wound up and up into the hills. Fields, forests, pastures passed by as I went upward, finally ending at a beautiful little Bai village near a reservoir. I went back down and had a blissfully warm shower before we went out to hotpot with a couple of people we met at the hostel. The hotpot (for four people) came to only 54 kuai total. Deal. After returning, we stayed up late playing Uno (again) before crashing.
The next day, we had some hot chocolate in a cafe on the square (made from freshly squeezed milk, according to the proprietor, and I believed him as it was some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted) before we went with the hostel owners and a couple guests for a dayhike on nearby 石宝山 – Stone Treasure Mountain, a range of mountains above the Shaxi valley famous for its Buddhist cave temple carvings. We spent the day hiking through pine forests, around cliffs, through a lush oasis-like valley, past a reservoir and finally to a pavilion beautifully positioned above the Shaxi valley before descending back to town. The hostel owners cooked us dinner and we played some more Uno before heading to sleep. Another great day in Shaxi. And I’ll just give another plug for the hostel, Horse Pen 46, as it’s a great place to hang out and the owners are really friendly. And my bed in an 8-bed dorm (with YHA card) cost only 15 kuai/night. Deal.
The next morning, we went with the hostel owners to Jianchuan where we caught a bus to Shangri-La. This bus was strange to us not only because there were baskets of chickens on the roof (actually a normal occurrence). No – the strangeness came from the fact that we were two of only FOUR passengers on the entire bus. Granted, it was a minibus. But still, buses here are usually packed to the gills, so this was a welcome change.
The uncrowdedness (word?) of the bus allowed us to switch sides constantly to find the best scenery. And great scenery it was: the bus cruised along through open valleys with glimpses of snow mountains ahead before suddenly careening downhill into the deep gorge of the 金沙江 (Jinsha Jiang), the River of Golden Sands, a river otherwise known as the upper Yangtze. The road crossed the Jinsha before following it below the ever-present gaze of towering 玉龙雪山 (Yulong Xueshan, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), whose icy pinnacles loomed over the gorge from 18000 feet up. We passed the entrance to famous 虎跳峡, Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Jinsha is squeezed into an even narrower and more precipitous gorge between Yulong Xueshan and Haba Xueshan peaks, a gorge more than 3000 meters deep (twice the depth of the grand canyon) and as narrow as 30 meters across – not to mention a popular hike. From the entrance to the gorge, the road started winding up the narrow gorge of a tributary, up and up past villages and through spruce forests and pine forests and the smell of juniper smoke incense and the bells of cattle before cresting a high pass and breaking out into the sunshine and the snowy fields of the high country, which stretched out before us to snowy peaks in the distance. Crossing snowcovered pastures, the road had views ranging from Yulong Xueshan to unknown mountain ranges to the north, over forests and grasslands dotted with grazing animals. After an hour or so cruising through this splendiferous scenery, we passed a massive stupa in a traffic circle (which we circled the wrong way) and entered Shangri-La.
Shangri-La (elevation 11,000 feet or so) is, by now, a large town, but is located in a beautiful wide valley reminiscent of Colorado with snowy peaks looming above sagebrush-dotted hills. We jumped off the bus and walked to Kailah’s house, which is located partway up a hill and commands excellent views of the entire area.
Shangri-La is divided into Old and New towns, the boundary between which is very apparent. Old Town is the more physically attractive (and has innumerably more tourists), a network of twisting alleyways lined with unobtrusively-renovated old Tibetan-style homes, but New Town has the markets and stores and services that people need to actually live in the area. But the two parts of town share one important commonality: during the winter, they do not have a drop of running water.
As Shangri-La is officially in South China, it does not have indoor heat despite its cool year-round temps. This means that in the winter, the pipes freeze solid in everyone’s homes (some homes have trickles of water in the afternoon depending on location). This means not only that you have to make the occasional trek to public showers and laundromats, not only that your sinks and toilets won’t drain, but also that you must haul drinking and cooking water from one of the public fountains around town all the way up the hill to your house on a pretty much daily basis.
However, despite the water issues, Shangri-La is still a Shangri-La of sorts. We spent the afternoon going to markets, wandering around old town, and doing necessary errands (e.g. filling up water buckets) before meeting one of Kailah’s students for dinner to talk about what we’d be doing for the next week. This student had invited Kailah and I over to her family’s house for Chunjie, the most important celebration of the year, and we had accepted the invitation and planned to leave the next morning and stay for six days.
Which we did. At 9am the next day, we piled into a van for the trip to 塔城, a town in Weixi Lisu Autonomous County to the west of Shangri-La. The trip took three hours primarily because the main road north of Shangri-La, which leads to Deqin and (eventually) Lhasa and Xining, is under massive construction. We bounced along a potholed dirt mess of a road for an hour through spectacular scenery before turning off on a narrow and thankfully paved road that led down, down, down off the plateau into the canyon of the Jinsha Jiang.
If you look at a topographical map of this area of Yunnan, you will probably be struck by the remarkable linear pattern of rivers and mountain ranges, which are aligned in neatly parallel north-south formations. This area is known worldwide for its remarkable biodiversity, as it includes every ecosystem imaginable from icefields and glaciers to temperate forests to jungles to desert-like arid canyons. The area is also home to remarkable ethnic diversity, with Tibetans, Lisu, Naxi, Yi, Pumi, and other ‘minority nationalities’ living side-by-side and even intermarrying. As such, the region has been designated one of the world’s twenty-odd Biodiversity Hotspots as well as a World Heritage Site, and has come under increasingly greater levels of environmental protection.
But despite the area’s publicity, it is still extremely rugged and remote. Our road wound down into the vast Jinsha gorge and along the powerful river, mountains looming high above with villages clinging to nearly impossible slopes high above the water. We passed through small towns and fields and along cliffs before turning off into the valley of a tributary and winding up into a slightly wider vale, where fields of wheat and rice filled every available square inch of flat valley floor. The van stopped by a white stupa, and we got out.
We walked along a dirt path to a river, which we crossed over a very narrow handrail-less questionable-looking wooden footbridge, before passing through flat wheat fields to a small village of thirty or so houses at the edge of the flat valley bottom.
“My home,” said the student who was hosting us.
We entered the small courtyard of her house and were greeted by her mother who, though she spoke little 普通话, showed us to our rooms and sat us down by the open fire in the kitchen, over which the family does all of their cooking. We met the other members of the family, which included her husband (newly remarried) and her husband’s ten-ish-year-old son. We hung out for a while before walking over to her grandmother’s house for lunch.
In the courtyard, the family members sat making blood sausage out of pig intestine. We walked into the house’s smoky kitchen (another open fire) and sat down for our meal.
Dishes came out in profusion. I looked around to identify and distinguish between the dishes, but all seemed to be the same general type of meat – pork. There were no green vegetables to be seen. Despite being in a valley warm enough to grow vegetables year-round, and despite the profusion of leafy greens we had already seen in everyone’s kitchen gardens, the dishes almost entirely consisted of various parts of pig.
Pork is far from the most exotic or frightening meat around (we saw a dead cat hanging in a neighboring courtyard), but I have never really eaten pork at all and prefer not to. In fact, I generally prefer eating vegetable or tofu dishes over those that contain meat (with some notable exceptions). But here there were no vegetable options; the only way out was meat.
So I picked at the least sketchy-looking pork dishes and tried to avoid those which might have been esophagus or testicles, while the entire extended family continually pushed us to “chi nzi” – Naxi for ‘eat meat.’ I ate as slowly as possible to minimize the intake of questionable pig parts and, after what seemed like a minor eternity, the meal was over and we walked together to the house of our host’s cousins in a neighboring village halfway up a hill.
Once arrived, we were sat down in front of a blaring TV and pretty much left alone while everyone else gossiped around the kitchen fireplace – which was fine by us. We wrote and read for a while, occasionally interrupted by the one-year-old baby daughter who poked her head in and stared wide-eyed, now frightened, now amused, at the strange people who had landed in her living room. After hanging out for a while, we had a dinner which again consisted entirely of pork dishes (eat SLOWLY) before walking back up the valley to home. We sat around the fire and talked a bit, but we were for the most part left out of the conversation. Though the region is home to an extremely diverse ethnic mixture (even within our host’s house this was evident: the mother is Naxi, the father and son are Lisu, and the daughter identifies as Tibetan like her father, who passed away three years before), the lingua franca of the area is Naxi. During our stay, we learned a few words (“eat meat! drink tea! drink beer! how are you, grandmother?”) but the conversations by and large remained unintelligible to us. In addition, the local Chinese dialect is quite complicated, as in addition to variations in tones and pronunciation locals often pepper their Chinese with words in Tibetan and Naxi. As the older generation generally speaks only Naxi or Tibetan, and the middle generation speaks the above languages plus a number of variations of Chinese, the members of the younger generation that we met often speak five or more languages on a daily basis. For instance, the woman we stayed with speaks Naxi, two types of Tibetan, local Chinese, Putonghua (standard Mandarin), and a bit of English. But for the most part, Putonghua is absent from daily life and only comes out when visitors arrive from outside the region.
The next morning, we were woken up by crowing roosters before the sun had hit the village. It had rained all night and the snowline had descended to within a few hundred feet of the valley floor. But soon after the sun reached the village, the day began to warm up and soon it was quite comfortable.
After a breakfast of 饵块 (fried rice cake things), we took the tractor into 塔城, the largest nearby town (about a kilometer away) to buy supplies for the following week at the market. We spent midday wandering around the market and meeting Kailah’s students and co-workers. After getting a haircut, we met the accountant at Kailah’s school, who invited us over for dinner in Hada village downvalley. We went over for dinner and, after a short walk up into the hills and spending a while hanging out by the fire, went back to our village and immediately fell asleep.
The next day was the last day of the old lunar year, and our family was busy most of the day making the big meal, which we would eat that mid-afternoon. This left Kailah and I free to go for a walk- which we did. We hiked up a narrow forested side-valley above a village, past pigs rummaging and foraging amid scrubby pines, before the path ended at a junction between two streams. We hung out for a while beneath some pines, reading and writing, before heading back down to 塔城 to buy some beer for our family, which I carried back to the village. We soon sat down for the meal, for which our family had prepared no less than sixteen (16!) separate dishes. Almost all of the dishes again consisted of pig parts, but one was a cold cucumber – sour greens salad which I pretty much stuck to most of the time. After eating, we wandered around the village and met more of Kailah’s students before coming back and setting off fireworks. After the fireworks, we wanted to go to bed but were instructed that we had to stay up later. We spent a while hanging out by the fire before we were finally allowed to go upstairs and crash.
The next day was Chunjie, the Chinese new year, and we spent the majority of the day visiting some of the multitudes of our host family’s relatives. The day was beautifully warm and clear, and it was great fun to wander around villages and poke into houses for short visits. The houses, though all had the same general courtyard plan, differed visibly based on the family’s socioeconomic status. While our family (and many other families) lived in a wooden home with few windows and poor ventilation, some families had glass windows in seemingly every room and some even lived in brick or concrete weatherproofed homes. And while our family cooked over an open wood stove, other families had enclosed wood stoves (e.g. the smoke went up a chimney instead of into our lungs) and, in some cases, electric hotplates. A couple of families even had cars in their courtyards. But whatever the socioeconomic differences, family structures seemed to remain the same within most households. We would walk inside to find an elderly, wizened matriarch, her hair braided with black cloth in a halo-like ring around her forehead, her face sunburned and pockmarked and creased by a life of farmwork, sitting behind the fire, sometimes accompanied by her husband but more often by a member of the younger (middle-aged) generation. This generation seemed to be constantly at work, preparing food and offerings, making sausage, sweeping and cleaning and generally keeping everything in order. They were often accompanied by several young kids, who shrieked and frolicked around the yard until the foreigners came in, when they ran and hid behind their parents, peeking out in curiosity and fear and wonder at the alien-like creatures who had entered their world.
Each time we visited a house, our hosts would give offerings before prostrating three times to each member of the older generation. The matriarch would then give out small amounts of money to the younger generation, usually five to ten kuai, before offering fruit and homebrewed 青稞酒 to the visiting families (and to us; I had a fair bit of homebrew that morning, most of which was quite good). After paying our respects and sometimes giving a gift to the matriarch, we would leave together and progress to the next house.
We spent the morning and midday doing these 拜年 visits to families in a nearby village as well as in 塔城 before sitting down to a meal at the home of a wealthier relative. After the meal, our hosts went home while we waited on a bridge for one of Kailah’s colleagues, who had invited us to her house. She didn’t turn up, but we didn’t mind; the day was beautifully warm and bright and we sat on the bridge watching the world go by and enjoying our freedom from the packed social calendar we had been experiencing for the past few days.
After an hour, Kailah’s colleague appeared and we went to her house a few minutes away. We spent some time talking (in 普通话！）before going upstairs and hanging out with the kids, throwing mini-firecracker-like poppers down from the rooftop at people walking and driving by on the road below, scaring all and sundry as we ducked below the railings and the passerby looked up, unable to figure out where those fireworks had come from anyway. We passed a fun few hours like this before returning to our village, where we sat around the fire at the grandmother’s house before going back home.
The next day, our last full day in the valley, was possibly my favorite. In the morning, we walked over to a neighboring village for a dance competition where one of Kailah’s student’s was helping out. The performances included dancing groups from tiny toddlers to older women, as well as some traditional singing, but the undeniable star of the show was the final performance when three dancers, one man and two women, pirouetted and spun and flailed wildly around the stage in brilliant vivid flashes of color and bold movements. The dance, at times organized, at times chaotic, constantly wild and unpredictable, seemed at once an affirmation of life, a celebration of existence, in comparison with which the difficulties of life in the valley drew away and disappeared. Rarely have I seen such a complete and full expression of joy directed towards simply living, life itself – or at least that was how I interpreted it.
The dance came to a close and we walked downvalley to the cousin’s house, where we had a meal which surprisingly consisted of snacklike bready foods and nearly no meat at all (thank god!). We hung out for a while before going on a walk and eventually heading back to our village, where we hung out before going to another dance competition in the same village which featured many of the same dancers. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun and many of the performances (except for one overenthusiastic card-trick-man who, though full of self-confidence, hardly held anyone’s attention) were amazingly professional and well-done. After the dancing, we walked home through the dark under a sky brilliantly spangled with stars.
The next morning we woke up early to say goodbye to the mother, father and son, who were going to visit relatives for a couple of days in 上江, a nearby town. After they drove away on their tractor, I started thinking about the amazing generosity of our hosts and all the people we had met in the valley. Despite pork-filled meals which effectively kept me from eating much, despite maggot-filled toilets covered by creaking floorboards and ever-present watchful eyes and excessive smoke inhalation and everything else that was annoying or overwhelming about our stay in 塔城, the people we met made it an amazing experience. The final evening, our family’s father (after drinking a fair bit of moonshine) started speaking to us in 普通话, which we were unaware he could speak at all. We learned that he and his cousin-by-marriage across the fire had been forced to leave school at an early age, before even entering middle school, to farm and support their families. We were told incessantly that we were always welcome at their house, and our presence was requested for the following year and for years to come. We were told to do whatever we’d like when at the house; when we were hungry, we should eat, when we wanted to go out for a walk, just go. The generosity of this farming family, who supported our stay without a single complaint, was above and beyond anything that most Americans would ever consider. When we left that final morning for Shangri-La, I forgot about all of the frustrations and overwhelming moments of the previous five and a half days and was filled with a corny-sounding though genuine sense of love and gratefulness for the people we had met, and (as I was in a forgiving mood) pretty much for humanity in general.
We arrived three hours later in Shangri-La, and, after hot showers, spent the afternoon wandering around and taking care of business. Now I’m hanging out on the roof of Kailah’s house in the bright sunshine, staring at the snowy mountains across the Shangri-La valley and thinking that the local government, even though motivated by tourism, might have been on to something when, ten years ago, they discovered Shangri-La right here.
(I will continue, just wanted to post something now…)