CHINA: Zhongdian...the Road to Shangri-la


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September 2nd 2012
Published: September 2nd 2012
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CHINA: Zhongdian...the Road to Shangri-la.

We have all been on hairy precipitous roads...one of the best...the road we took from Lijiang to reach the reason for my first trip to China...Shangri-la...brilliant. The road beyond to Tibet...impassible due to heavy snow.

First bend of the Yangtze...the river takes a 180 degree turn...then heads deep into China...all the way to Shanghai. Signs warning not to swim across...as if...vendors around small fires...only moving if we approach their tables of wares.

Bought a Tibetan mirror and a Tibetan necklace with a pendant of a minature feather one side & a dagger the other...wore it for the rest of the trip...as well as my later trips to China...special piece among the truckloads of souvenirs I have bought to assist the Chinese economy.

Into the 8 seater heading into the mountains...STOP...road blocked...Detour required...a little dirt track down the riverbank...what...we have to walk from here!

A dodgy metal ferry boat approaches...our van gets on OK...but the blue Dong Feng truck behind...me amazed it got on.

The other side was unsealed dirt...temporarily the main highway...mouthful of dust each time a truck went by.

Picnic lunch by the edge of the Yangtze...on a pebbled beach...black eggs and other delights...river looking pristine & blue.

Our driver Dick wanders down to the water...presume he's going to wash his hands...or soak his feet...NO...he urinates in the water...I can't believe it...he could have gone anywhere...but in the Yangtze...still can't believe it!

We leave the dirt road and start climbing into the mountains...this road sealed but steep drop to one side ever increasing...no barricades on the edge...narrow...mountain wall the other.

I was in the back seat RH corner of the van...so when we went around a precipitous bend...felt like I was hanging over the side...up to 4,000m drop...pretty freaky considering we drove all day.

Dong Feng Territory...the light blue trucks that frequented the road...most squealing or spewing black smoke when braking...meeting them on bends...lottery if we would remain on the road.

A mini bus overtakes us at speed...whips around a bend and is gone. We had seen three dead bodies lined on the edge back there...will the occupants of the mini van be next?

Met them later in Zhongdian...tourists from Taiwan...stories of "the Drive from Hell"...how the more they screamed...the faster the driver would go...laughing as if Terror & Fear was his game...yes... they were trying to complain to the Tour company.

The higher we went the freakier it got.

Occasional locals working by the edge of the road...clearing up landslides or painting the edge white...always with their behinds facing the traffic...as if to say "I'm not watching but if you hit me...the compensation will make my day!"

Went around one blind bend and Dick stops dead...in the middle of the narrow bend.

There was a Dong Feng broken down on the bend with another trying to overtake towards us...nil room for us...nil room for error...massive drop...and I'm hanging over the side!!!

But in China...even when no one appears around...you are never alone.

Going around a bend...David's mobile starts ringing.

"Hello...this is the Yi people...your family must be missing you...why don't you give them a ring...from China Telecom."

Then around another bend, David's mobile rings again.

"Hello...this is the Tibetan people...your family must be missing you...why don't you give them a ring...from China Telecom."

Shades of George Orwell's "1984"...Big Brother...someone is watching over us.

Every family in China has a television and a mobile phone...cheap as chips to locals...whether you live in a flash apartment or a stone hut or cave dwelling with satelite dish...my theory how the Chinese government can keep track of and control its massive population.

A spectacular Tibetan village across the gorge...clinging to the side...shafts of light highlighting villages in distant valleys...the vistas thrilling my soul.

But by 4pm I could take it no more...too many passing Dong Feng trucks...screaming brakes...us within inches of the edge...me in the back hanging over the Yangtze...it 1,000s of metres below...had to lie down...in the centre aisle of the van...can't look over the edge anymore...freaked out one time too many...the others laughing making me feel slightly better!

If not for Dick's skill and care for our safety I would not be here today...thanked him many times...which he appreciated. I developed a special bond with him...he spoke little English but I felt he was looking after us.

There's a Tibetan horse market on the side of a hill...wandered among them...they all staring at us...felt intrusive as we were tourists gate-crashing a local event...so I joined them...no shared language...not needed...you know the feeling.

We are approaching Zhongdian...our base for the next few days. Tibetan dwellings more plentiful...massive racks for drying grain and hay...horses...yaks...stupas...and incredible jewellery.

Stopped at a Tibetan market. Bought a carnelian bracelet and a bone 100 children carved vase. I believe the bone vase is buried for several weeks after carving to give an ancient look...I don't care if it is old or recent...brilliant piece.



Chinese Medicine

As we approached Zhongdian I could taste infection in my throat...bummer...one too many mouthfuls of dust from the road...too many four hour sleeps at night...my body must be run-down.

My two Aussie mates were coming down with something as well.

So David searched the city for a Chinese remedy. Stopped at a shop with a red cross...they didn't have what he wanted...so to another...then another...bingo...sachets one brown powder like instant coffee...the other with little green pills...instructed us dosages for before bed & in the morning...the taste of infection strong...me fearing the worst.

Well...I took the Chinese medicine as instructed...the other two didn't.

One of my mates had flu for a week.

The other was sick for about three months...run down...couldn't shake it. We thought he had SARS...it became famous around this time.

Don't understand why...but I was well the following day...like fantastic...David not surprised...continued to take it as instructed for a few days.

Do I believe in Chinese medicine?...sure do...wisdom of the ancients...sure do.



Shangri-la

Each region in Yunnan has the flavour of its ethnic inhabitants...26 ethnic minority groups...diversity guaranteed...and Zhongdian was distinctively Tibetan...with a bit of Yi.

It had an outpost feel...Tibetan villages as outer suburbs...sprawl of commercial...me only really seeing the Tibetan rug shop we passed...to our hotel...the best in town...provisional 4 star...warnings not to go out at night.

This was 2003...the Airport had only recently been opened...called Shangri-la Airport...guess that way the Chinese secure the name...as a number of countries claim Shangri-la!

I am aware Zhongdian has lately been renamed Shangri-la...to confirm the claim.

Also it now has an old Lijiang style "ancient village"...the favourite haunt of tourists...but to my recollection it was NOT there when I was in town...certainly not like it is now.

Bit like Lijiang...the expansive paved entrance area to Dayan Town and the Jade Corridor of "ancient Naxi style" restaurants on my second visit... leading up to Black Dragon Pool (the panorama pic to my "Lijiang...Rectifying my Regret" blog) was a rough concrete carpark outside the old town with a scrub bash up the canal on my first trip...blew me away how the old city had changed in only 4 years.

The ground at this time of year...winter...is rock hard...and so was my bed at the hotel...can't complain...better then sleeping on concrete...as the bed did have sheets!

Banquet dinner good...little sleep...inedible breakfast washed down with hot orange cordial...Chinese medicine...feeling pretty good...time to discover the essence of Shangri-la...the object of my quest.

First stop a Tibetan house to arrange dinner for later...then into the mountains...sign next to a stupa "First Village of Shangri-la"...I have arrived.

Picnic lunch in a frozen field...ground crunchy...the sound of bells...Tibetan men & women on nimble horses trotting by in groups...smiling down on us as we sit munching...yep...I've arrived!

The road up the mountain...steep ribbon...no traffic...the view at the top breathtaking...

white tips of mountains like the tips of waves in a choppy swell.


Onto horses...led by the Yi...their turn today...alternating days with the Tibetans...hard gig as they have to walk 40kms each way to work here...in the off chance a tourist will hire a horse...hard gig.

Down a forest track...on horseback...with Yi women trilling...echoes ricochetting around the trees...so I sang a song...and they trilled again...long way down...welcome to Bita Lake.

Bita Lake is a resort...pretty cabins...canoes on the frozen lake...no guests...just us with the Yi... imagine in summer this is a Tibetan water sports playground.



Skinny Lamb, Yak Tea & Karioke

Stopped at the Tibetan house on the way back...greeted by our hosts with a tray of drinks in silver goblets...us men taken to the private temple...special room in the house...signs of affluence I think.

Two storey timber dwelling...animals downstairs...humans upstairs...massive television in pride of place...hole in one corner...to which they often approached...and spat down there.

Drinking Yak tea in one corner...around a little fire...refilling our cups...me the only one having seconds...acrid but warm...acquired but not unpleasant taste.

David had arranged the slaughter of a lamb in the morning...and our hosts had spent the day preparing it...brought out triumphantly on a painted tray...move to a table...feast assurred.

Gotta say the lamb...to call it "Skinny Lamb" is generous. There was so little flesh on the carcass...the skin like stiff tissue paper...guess it was their mangiest lamb...fair call...David would have paid anyway.

One of my mates wanting to change seats...in a draught he says...and when I go to his position at the table...next to the side wall...I see what he means. There was a narrow crack in the wall...and through that crack...felt like a knife...a solid shaft of icy air cutting into his back.

Our hosts...Dad, Mum, teenage son & young daughter...dressed in their finest...dancing for us around the central wooden pillar...bit like Maypole dancing...then the Dad sings...with accompaniment from the TV.

Calling for us to sing...our group silent...OK...I'll give it a go!

Sang "Sing Halleluhja to the Lord"...sort of song you'd expect be sung by Jewish men or Russian Cossacks...deepest bass I could...sounded right on this frozen night...in a Tibetan Buddhist home...in Shangri-la.

Then my mates joined me for "Waltzing Matilda"...our Chinese friends singing folk songs...our hosts delighted.



Ganden Sumtseling Gompa

I had been to the Tibetan Lamasary in Beijing...with its massive sandlewood Kuan Yin...but it was nothing compared to this place...the largest Tibetan monastery in SW China...300 years old...about 600 monks...the reason many visit Zhongdian...set on the side of a hill...valley in front...simply magic.

I'll let the photos tell their own story...words not necessary.

Bought a knife near the entrance...thought it was pretty fancy...Tibetan...in a fancy curved metal sheath.

Not till I got back to OZ and examined it properly...the figures on it look Egyptian to me...like that Aztec pen a mate got for me in Mexico...wasn't he shocked when I showed him the winged Pharoahs thereon!!!



Dreaming of Tibetan Rugs

Our last morning in Zhongdian was a blanket of snow...so much so that our 8 a.m. flight to Kunming was delayed...have I got time to buy a Tibetan rug?

I have a house full of handmade rugs...one of my many obsessions...had to rebuild the house to house them...and it all started with a Tibetan rug.

Married 2 years...buying our home...a tiny fibro cottage with stunning bush views...got a call at work:

"That Tibetan rug you were looking at was bought by a woman but it didn't match her house so she's brought it back. It's here if you would like it."

I had wandered through an Art Exhibition in the Commonwealth Trading Bank HQ in Sydney...just killing time...a group hoping to import Tibetan rugs into Australia...3 rugs on display to guage interest...think I entered a raffle to win a painting...must have left my phone number...must have liked the rugs.

No way I could afford a rug...we were paying petrol for my Datsun 180B from 2 cent coins in tennis ball tins...we were scraping to buy our home...no way I could afford a rug...but I went down to the bank anyway!

The afternoon light was shafting at an angle through the leadlight windows...onto the expansive marble floor of the bank...and onto the prettiest rug I had ever seen...couldn't resist...meant to be...lucky I've just been paid!

When we moved into our house...all our helpers & us sat on this rug...surrounded by boxes...and had a picnic. The rug is still in the same place many years later...albeit the house rebuilt around it.

And as my rug collection grew I dreamed of buying one on an overseas trip...and as I've seen a Tibetan rug shop on the other side of Zhongdian...have I time?

Ringing Shangri-la Airport hourly..."check in an hour" each time...finally flew out at 6.30pm.

Did I venture out in the snow to find a rug? Unfortunately "NO"...not worth the risk...don't want to be left behind!

So did I ever pick up a Tibetan rug on my travels?

Sure did...two actually...in a more appropriate place...Tibet that is...but that's another story.

Relax & Enjoy,

Dancing Dave


Additional photos below
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2nd September 2012

Quite a ride!
Sounds like quite a ride you had in the minivan! Crazy what they load onto a tiny boat to get across the river, but I guess you do what you have to do... Love the story of building a house and home around the rug, makes it a really special piece :-)
2nd September 2012

THANKS JO
What can I say? Shangri-la...special place...special stories...and the rug...always a special piece!
2nd September 2012

Waltzing Matilda??????
I've heard it all now! Here is Dave, trekking empty plateaus and the vast wilderness where no man (or woman) has boldly gone before and that is the best you can come up with??? Then again, I suppose it's better than the theme tune to Home and Away! Those Tibetan people are lovely folk but the most ruthless salespeople I have ever come across....maybe that is why the minibus drivers drive like maniacs; in a desperate attempt to flee from them! :)
2nd September 2012

Waltzing Matilda??????
I knew it...thanks for making it clear...but when the only other songs I knew the words for was your National Anthem & Nursery Rhymes...Waltzing Matilda went down really well!
2nd September 2012

Ah China ...
Always a special place, especially when traveling to remote places ... Reading your blog brought back so many memories (good ones and yes scary ones when it comes to traveling local style ...), thanks so much for sharing ! Now hope that despite a fast pace development they won't start to put concrete everywhere ... Seems to have changed quite a bit already .. but hospitality still the same, that's good! Side note on the rug, love the "rebuilding the house around it" story! got a few and simply don't go with anything but still love them, what to do ...
2nd September 2012

THANKS LAETITIA
Travels in China...always a special place. The rugs...gotta love them.
2nd September 2012
CROSSING THE YANGTZE

Crazy ride and beautiful rug, but this photo made my jaw drop.
2nd September 2012
CROSSING THE YANGTZE

THANKS MICHELLE
Nothing like a crazy ride for a crazy story. How can a truck so big...survive on a boat so small? Optimism or madness.
3rd September 2012

wow...
THAT IS CHINA!!!!!
3rd September 2012

HOLA GRACIELA
Nice to hear from you. Next time please log in so I can see your profile pic.
4th September 2012

CHINA!
I've really enjoyed your China blogs Dave! You continue to write your amazing adventures in this wonderful land and I haven't been able to stop reading them. Since it was my first trip out of the country I'm quite partial to China. Not to mention the fact I'm 25% Chinese. Please keep them coming! They're truly never boring!
4th September 2012

THANKS JOHNNY
I am delighted to hear from you...and that you are enjoying my China blogs. Yep...never boring...more to come...watch this space. Travel is all about experience & perspective. It is an honour to share with like-minded people...the essence of Travelblog. Your blogs are inspiring...keep up the good work.
4th September 2012

Love Your Writing Style!
We've been to Tibet on our way to India back in 2008. I've always wondered if it, too, had changed... Keep writing your fascinating blogs!
4th September 2012

THANKS NANCI
Nice to hear from you...more to come...watch this space.
8th September 2012

Narrow, twising, mountain roads
That sounded a frightening bus journey, but at least it led you to a place of wonderful memories!
8th September 2012

THANKS SHANE
Dong Feng territory...yeeka

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