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Published: September 29th 2012
Zhongdian aka Shangri-La is situated at 3200m above sea level; at that height, many travellers experience altitude sickness. We didn't recognize too many side effects of altitude sickness, mostly just shortness of breathe. We slowly worked our way up – from Kangding (2600m) to Xiangcheng (2800m) to Shangri-La (not to mention a few times on the bus over 5000m!) – and that could be what helped us out.
Zhongdian was unofficially renamed Shangri-La by the government more than a decade ago, apparently because 'experts' had established with certainty that the area is the location of James Hilton's 1933 bestseller Lost Horizon.
However, cynics say it was done to increase tourism since logging in the area was banned. The city is booming so the plan has obviously worked. As we drove into town all we could see were crane's and new buildings; we were kind of like “This is Shangri-La??”, but we were staying away from most of the construction. The most touristy section of the city is the Old Town. The Old Town revolves around Square Street which is essentially a street in the shape of a square. Many little side streets wander off of Square Street to create a village feel in the middle of a growing city. The ambiance of the town is also helped by the lush mountains and farm land that surrounds it and also the Buddhist temples over looking the town.
The cobbled streets and local Tibetan people make it feel like another world as soon as you enter this part of town. Shangri-La vaguely reminded us of Pingyao with it's old world feel, but this time there weren't any tour groups and it was much larger so there was more to see. We spent most of our time walking up and down the streets watching the people. As much as we obviously stick out like a sore thumb, Chinese tourists stick out just as much. The Chinese tourists are pretty much always "decked-out" wearing their high-heels or statement shoes with designer clothing from head to toe. They usually have about 4 different devices – tablet, cell phone, another cell phone, camera, most likely another camera etc. It's nice to know we aren't the only odd man out in China. Every one is always travelling, just like us.
In the main square of the Old Town there are a number of ladies setup with small BBQ's and endless amounts of skewers. Some of the skewer options: broccoli, eggplant, zucchini, green onion, potato, yak, lamb, chicken, shrimp, one that made three mini buns of bread, another that was like a disc made of rice, and the list goes on. We ate the skewers as a meal numerous times they were so delicious! But we went to a different skewer lady every time, you know, to spread the wealth.
The evening before we left we wanted to go up to the temple to watch the sunset. We got there around 5:30 which gave us plenty of time to walk around. The temple itself is pretty cool, but the prayer wheel is a big highlight. It's huge! If you spin the prayer wheel three times, you have made 37.2 billion prayers. It takes at least 5 large men to turn the wheel so that is a whole lot of praying going on. We both made three full circles plus a bit more to help keep it spinning.
The views from the temple were great. We could see most of Shangri-La. With the temple being in the middle of the Old Town you can see all of the wooden roofs and crooked lanes and then as the Old Town ends it turns into a normal city with stores and homes. We found a little spot to sit at the back of the temple to watch the sunset over the mountains. It was like no other sunset we've seen. Since the sun was setting behind mountains and we were at such a high altitude, the sky remained blue entire time. No reds, purples, pinks or oranges, just blue sky and wispy clouds until the sun went behind the mountains and the temperature dropped by at least 5 degrees. It was very cool, and a great addition to our attempt at seeing 100 sunsets during this entire journey.
On our way down from the temple we came across a group of people dancing. This is an extremely common theme in China and such a great part of their culture. Every night at 7pm the main square shuts down and the music starts so people can dance but we didn't know that also happened near the temple (since we hadn't ventured that far at night). Usually a small group of Tibetan ladies starts the dancing and then the circle gets larger and larger by the minute. Everyone joins in! Locals, tourists, backpackers, police, young, old, some with rhythm and others without; it's a free space to let loose and have fun. Rebecca definitely had to give it a shot but only stayed in the circle for a couple of songs, some of the people dance for hours. We could still hear the music from the square going at 9pm. Not only is it a great way to create a beautiful community, but also a good way to stay in shape.
NOW! Now we are about to go on a three day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge. It's going to be great! We haven't had much time to spend surrounded by nature in China so the next three days are going to be amazing! We will get you an update once we get back to an internet connection. Until then, enjoy your days.
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