Published: December 20th 2009October 30th 2009
A small section of the huge temple complex.
In 2001, Zhongdian was officially renamed Xianggelila, which is how the Chinese say Shangri-la. Shangri-la is of course a fictitious place, created in James Hilton's 1933 book 'Lost Horizon'
. It is a mystical, harmonious valley, in the foothills of the Himalayas, isolated from the outside world, and is now synonymous with utopia. Many places in the world claim to be the inspiration behind the fantasy paradise, including a fair few just in China, but the Chinese Government went one step further than everyone else and took it upon themselves to officially claim it as their own. This is more than just absurd and was done just to attract more tourists (which believe me has worked wonderfully, as a couple of times I was told by other tourists that they were only there because it was, apparently, 'paradise'). One local, who was either incredibly audacious, or just plain stupid, actually told Izzy that Shangri-la was the original name for Zhongdian, which is ridiculous because the Chinese can't even say Shangri-la, hence the name 'Xiang-ge-li-la'. Despite this, according to most experts and researchers, the 'real'
Shangri-la is most likely actually a lot further west, on the other side of the Himalayas, in Pakistan.
I wont be referring to Zhongdian as Shangri-la in this blog; while it was a really enjoyable couple of days, it certainly wasn't paradise.
It was dark when we arrived in Zhongdian, Gyalthang to the local Tibetans, at about 8pm. The road from Tiger Leaping Gorge was immensely scenic with views of snow capped mountains, jagged hills, gorges and valleys changing colour in the sun set as we climbed our way up into the Tibetan plateau. The area is no longer a part of Tibet itself after the Chinese government carved up the fringes of Tibet, now the 'Xizang Autonomous Region'
, and gave them to neighbouring provinces such as Yunnan, Sichuan, Xinjiang and huge chunks to Qinghai. So much so that the government officially renamed it the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Despite the area no longer being in Tibet, it is allowed a very small degree of autonomy as a prefecture, and still feels very much how I imagined Tibet to look and feel (cold!). Tibetan script can be seen everywhere on shops and road signs (as well as the Chinese translation for the Han migrants and English for the tourists).
A minibus took us from the bus station to
Murals in the temples.
our hostel and we ate and drank a much needed hot dinner and cold beer before retiring for the night. The air was so cold and crisp but a welcome break from the humidity of further east in China - a bit more like home on the northwest coast of England :). Having said that though the log fire stove in the bar was much appreciated, and not just by us three, but by two playful kittens and their knackered mum as well. The rooms were freezing and the electric blankets they provided didn't work, so even with all of our clothes on it was a crazy cold night! The next morning the three of us walked down the road to another guidebook recommended hostel to see if they had any warmer rooms. They didn't, but they did serve a cracking egg and soldiers.
After breakfast we jumped on the #3 public bus, which our guidebook says goes straight to a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery called Gandan Sumtseling in Tibetan, and Songzanlin Si in Chinese. Before we got there the bus pulled into a car park and a couple of smirking policemen, or official looking types, asked us where we
A building not yet restored.
were going and then ordered us, and only us, off the bus. We were herded into a building and told we must buy a ticket for the monastery. 85 Yuan is incredibly excessive but we managed to convince them we were all students, using Clare's Shanghai gym membership card (yes, it was in Chinese), and one of Izzy's spare student cards, which saved us all 30 Yuan each. We left the building on the other side and got on a different bus that took us to the monastery entrance, where we saw the #3 park up and everyone else who was on there with us get off. Clare and I can read a little bit of Chinese now and printed on the front of the ticket in big characters was 'foreigner pass'.
Gandan Sumtseling is more than just a 'typical' monastery, it's a huge temple complex and is actually home to about 700 monks, although at its peak it accommodated over 2,000. It was originally built in 1679 by the 5th Dalai Lama, but was mostly obliterated during the Cultural Revolution. It wasn't rebuilt until the early eighties, and is still being restored and expanded today in it's original
Ladies Stop! No Smoking!
A side entrance to a temple.
traditional Yellow Hat sect style. The whole 'village' is incredibly beautiful and has a very distinct Tibetan feel to it and looks like no other 'Chinese' monastery we've been to before. It took us a good couple of hours to walk around the complex - clockwise, always clockwise - and see the three main temples, which are covered in beautiful paintings and murals of Tibetan Buddhist scenes and imagery, including the Dharma Wheel and it's big, ugly Guardian. The smell of yak butter is ever present as there are candles and tea made of the stuff all over the place. Surrounded by the breathtaking Tibetan countryside, it's a really nice, solitudous morning walk, watching the monks go about their daily business, cleaning shrines, emptying and refilling vessels with yak butter, and even a bit of construction work outside, trying to stop their robes blowing open in the occasional breeze. Although at 3,300 metres above sea level even the slightest incline can become quite an effort. Despite the price,it's definitely worth checking out.
We jumped back on the #3 and went back to our hostel which is right on the edge of Gyalthang's 'Old Town'. The Old Town is where
A Holy Child
A narrow side street in the 'village'.
all the old school wooden buildings sit, and any new 'old' building that is constructed is built in the same traditional style. While this can make you somewhat sceptical as to just how authentic the Old Town is compared to, for example, Lijiang Old Town's stone buildings, wooden buildings don't last forever and so have always been rebuilt through the ages, which in my opinion actually makes this one of the more 'authentic' Old Towns in all of China. What is left is protected and strictly for pedestrians, however the encroachment of the 'New Town' in recent years means that it is now quite a small area. We ate lunch and explored the streets, eventually coming across a giant chorten, the Tibetan word for stupa, which an English woman there told us is the largest in the world. Yet another tourist attraction built for the record books.
Clare wasn't feeling so great, possibly altitude sickness, which is quite common after climbing so high so fast. She went to sleep for a while and then at 8pm decided that it would be better to warm her bones by the stove in the bar. We ordered dinner and started talking to
Another section of the monastery.
a girl from London sitting on her own opposite us. Her name was Becky and she admitted that she was staying in another hostel and was only eating dinner here for the log fire. She was a lone traveller and had come to China via the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which is exactly what Clare and I had originally planned to use to get back home, before deciding that Vietnam might be a wiser choice for December. Her final destination was India where she planned on being for quite a long while after spending a bit of time in southwest China.
She had been trekking in Tiger Leaping Gorge at the same time as us three, but had quite a horrible story to tell. The hostel where she had stayed at was owned by a Tibetan man whose Australian wife had been hiking that week with her dog and a local Tibetan guide. Unfortunately only the dog came back, and while the man didn't go into detail he knew that his wife had been killed. Obviously this had really spooked Becky, so for the time being she wasn't really interested in trekking on her own any more. Because her plans were
A temple in the centre of the Old Town.
quite similar to ours, the four of us ended up spending the next week and a half together and became really good friends.
Because Gyalthang is still a bit of a backwater, and very much feels like a real frontier town, most places shut after dark and the hostel actually had a midnight curfew. Becky went back to her place, but determined to carry on the party, Clare and Izzy tried their best to sneak out of the hostel and look for some bars, and even managed to find a rope to dangle down from the roof. Eventually the manager, who was a slight, timid, middle aged man, found them and told them that it would be OK just to phone him when we wanted to come back and he'll let us back in.
Gyalthang is not a happening city after dark. There were practically no lights at all bar street lamps, and the pub mentioned in the guidebook was closed. So armed with our torches we went in search of adventure in the pitch black cobbled streets of the Old Town. Naturally it was incredibly atmospheric and sometimes with the silhouette of the huge chorten visible in
Old Town Roofs
A view of Zhongdian's Old Town from by the stupa.
between the old buildings, it was quite a creepy, foreboding place to be walking around. Down one of the streets we heard some voices and saw a few people go up some stairs to the top floor of one of the old wooden buildings. Deciding that if anywhere was going to offer alcohol it would be there, we followed them up.
Indeed alcohol was for sale and the place was full of drunken Tibetan teenagers. The flirty bar girl, who was definitely more than a little drunk herself, showed us to a table and gave us a menu. Occasionally some of them would come to our table and try to speak to us in Mandarin, and one particularly sozzled character even offered to drive us to our next destination the next day. We took his number and said yes to get him away, but he constantly returned making sure we would call him. It was a really cosy place to hang out and it was a shame to leave the things keeping us warm (fire and rum), but we had an early start in the morning, heading for one of the holiest sites for all Tibetans, Meili Snow Mountain.
World's Biggest Stupa
Tibetan style chorten.
More photos here