Shangri-la, Deqin: On the Edge of Nothing


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November 26th 2007
Published: December 19th 2007
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[youtube=92MF2npWJh4][youtube=A2f3iVAwYJE]Their voices matched the surroundings - this Tibetan duo. There were no words just soft, soothing, sweet undulations ebbing and flowing. He was a professional singer but she could well have been also. It was just natural to close our eyes and drift away on the wings of their music. We were high in the mountains. Very, very high in the mountains! And the scenery was beyond compare. Jagged peaks towered above, pine trees clung to mountainsides, a lone herder marshalled his sheep and icy winds swirled menacingly.

Shangri-La was the destination. The stuff of legends, Shangri-La was immortalized in James Hilton's book, The Lost Horizon. But only the author could tell if China's Shangri-La was the setting of the novel. The Chinese government certainly thinks so and have so promoted the mountain top village. Our high expectations fizzled when the bus rolled on to broad, paved highways and past modern, cookie-cutter condos. This was eons away from what we imagined such a glorified, magical, mystical place to be. But there was an old town and we, after bidding 'goodbye' to the Beijingers, checked into Barley's Town Youth Hostel at the old town's beginning. The place was well kitted out with all types of backpacker delights like battery chargers, classic novels and wifi. The man-in-charge at the moment was 'Sea Thunder' - a friendly treasure-trove of information. The old town was a scaled-down version of Lijiang and it did little to impress us. Behind the 'Gucheng' though, was an awesome, giant, gleaming Buddhist prayer wheel. The temple was equally impressive. Easily the height of 15 humans, the wheel was adorned with sculptures of scenes of mountains, rivers, people and even swastikas. Sunlight glinted off the massive gold frame as believers struggled to turn the wheel. At night it was illuminated by powerful lights and became a beautiful beacon for navigation.

Shangri-La was a busy trading post with nearby Tibet. A strong military presence was evident probably because of the ongoing controversy concerning ownership of Tibet. The community's drawing card and must-see sight was Songzanlin Monastery - a sprawling 300 year old complex housing about 600 Tibetan monks.

Songzanlin sat regal on a hill overlooking the shanty town at its feet and Shangri-La in the distance. The entrance fee was RMB 60 per person for the pleasure of climbing the 300 steps to the top and roaming free throughout almost the entire monastery. Shanna was not allowed to enter the kitchen. Oh, and 'No', it wasn't 300 steps but it certainly did feel like it. Not quite sure about the convention of interactions with monks, we were a little cautious. What we knew was that monks, by their very oath, renounced the world and its possessions and temptations, lived on the bare necessities and devoted their entire life to serving God and each other. But when this one monk dipped between the folds of his auspicious burgrundy robe, whipped out a cell phone and answered an incoming, we knew that times had changed. Various buildings on the complex housed various giant Buddha statues some with the kindest of faces. We tiptoed thru what seemed to be a dorm and into a dark back section with dark outlines of three more Buddhas. Pictures were allowed inside, although we did snap a couple undercover (not our proudest moments). The view from the rooftop was to-die-for. The gold Lamas and the gold trimmings clashed with the austere surroundings but as the golden rays of a setting sun bounced off the metal, they appeared magical. A chant arose from beneath us and little
City view City view City view

From the Songzanlin Monastery
bells chimed and flags fluttered in the winds and we could see why this was simply the perfect location. It was almost dark when we left. We hitched a ride down the mountain and decided to walk the last 2 km. And a good thing it was. On a huge square, in front of a grand, new building, about 500 villagers and tourists were doing traditional circle dances. They whirled and twirled to the lively music with precise steps and hand gesture. The whole mass of people moved as one organism although we noticed that the older generation moved with greater precision. Every song had a different dance pattern. Apart from being highly entertaining, this group dancing had the practical purpose of keeping the participants warm. At this altitude and during this season, the daytime hours were cold and felt colder when gust of winds blew. Night temperatures in Shangri-La plunged close to zero Celcius. We bought heavy Northface windbreakers and thick ski gloves to keep us warm day and night.

The obligatory visit complete, Shangri-La became empty to us and early the next morning we started our journey higher into the mountains to Deqin. Deqin could well be China's Timbuctu because of its remoteness and at 3550 meters/11 646 feet would have us cross ear-popping mountain ranges. This was the last stop before Tibet which was only 80 km away in the West. Myanmar (Burma) an all its political turmoil lay southwest. Most of the small population were Tibetan.

The bus had another 4 tourists but the rest of the passengers were locals with the distinctive Tibetan features, jolly round faces and rose-coloured cheeks. Vibert's biggest friend was a Tibetan lad. The two were simply inseparable and extremely playful. For 8 hours or so we drove on the edge of nothing. The one-lane 'road' had neither shoulder nor guardrail and it just kept climbing. But when we encountered another vehicle, the driver would, to our horror, inch all the way to the edge of the precipice but never slow down. Imagine staring straight down from 3000+ meters (9800 feet) into a valley while two testosterone-fueled drivers played 'chicken' in the mountains. After about the 12th near-death experience, the driver slammed the brakes and jumped out. We thought he was going to have 'words' with the other driver who had also stopped but they both seemed fixed on the mountain range on the left. The peaks were white with snow and against a blue sky it looked storybook-like. Contrastingly, the mountains on the other side of the road were desert-dry. Pine trees, which were usually winter hardy and kept their green colour, were turning yellow in this cold. We rushed back inside, shivering.

A row of chorten and a village gate of sorts officially announced our entrance into Deqin. It was about 4:30 pm and we were instantly mobbed by 'fans' and hotel touts when we de-bussed. But we agreed to go with Selina - a Tibetan young lady who spoke very good English. She took us to Tashi's Mountain Lodge - another 5km from Deqin proper and with unparalleled views over a huge gorge. Securing our bags in a our rooftop chamber with super-colourful Tibetan art, we set off on foot, up the sloping hill. Deqin was cold. Super cold! But the walking warmed us up. Forty minutes of huffing and puffing brought us to a lookout point over a snow-crowned range of mountains called Meili Xueshan. Chorten, prayer flags and burning incense were everywhere. And, just for us, the clouds parted offering up incredible views of Kawa Karpo's 6740-meter/22112 feet white peak. 'Like totally awesome', Ebony would say. It was dark when we got back to Tashi's. Dinner was a feast with the family in a common-room warmed by electric heaters. Then, from our upstairs balcony, we gazed up at a star-filled sky. Somehow, at this altitude and in the dark, the heavenly bodies seemed unbelievably close; almost like we could reach-out-and-touch them. But our astrological pleasures were cut very short as the temperature turned glacial forcing us to comandeer a heater and burrow deep beneath a weighty pile of yak-fur blankets clad in everything we owned.

Hot yak-butter tea, pancakes and sunshine semi-thawed us out the next morning. Our driver (read 'pilot') had all the symptoms of a severe hangover from a night of hard Tibetan partying. He was so plastered that he spat on his closed window sending polluted rivulets in every direction. His condition did precious little to assure us a safe ride. He stomped the accelerator, punished the gearbox, ignored the brake pedal and murdered a bird all before getting us to the foot of Mingyong Glacier. We were going to climb to the top of the mountain, a four-hour
MeilixueshanMeilixueshanMeilixueshan

Near the monestry
trek, to view the glacier up close. Entrepreneurs were renting horses and handlers at RMB 100 for the trek up. We declined having already shelled out a total of RMB 126 for the entrance fee. We regretted our 'cheapness' in the first two minutes. The climb was steep and non-stop. Our lungs laboured and heads throbbed and we realized that we were five months older than when we tackled Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic (see On The Trail of Juan Pablo Duarte). Even sucking in what little oxygen remained at this altitude proved an ordeal since the innumerable loads of horse-dropping made the air pungent. The trail was, undoubtedly, the filthiest we had ever hiked on. But Mingyong had, for ages, been a pilgrimage site and even the old and infermed limped up the incline. An hour passed and some wiseguy, descending on a horse, thought it appropriate to inform us that we had another 3 hours. We began to question whether this was fun or punishment. Every muscle in our bodies, including muscles we didn't even know we had, started to burn. Pain became a constant companion. And then Lianhua Miao (Lotus Temple) appeared. Above the temple and prayer flags, we could see the glacier. The last 30 minutes to the ultimate viewpoint were the most difficult but great was our reward for persevering. Mingyong Glacier stretched out above and below us. The thick ice was blue in places but off-white for the most part. Random depressions, curves and pointy edges defined the ice sheet. Around it, a small but tall waterfall trickled down Kawa Karpo and divine views of the gorge were off to the left. Needless to say, the temperature was glacial in daylight. After an hour of open-mouthed gazing, we ended our first glacier experience and ran down the mountain trail.

Time up: 2½ hours Time down: 1 hour 38 mins

We are better than we think!!

From the glacier we went into Deqin, the town but soon departed. It was simply too dirty and and its one main sloping road had absolutely no attraction. Besides, with our aching bodies, we couldn't climb an anthill even if our lives depended on it.

The bus station was closed at 6 am even though the departure time was 6:15. An icy drizzle kept us huddling in the backseat of the taxi. And the
We had a whole conversation in ChineseWe had a whole conversation in ChineseWe had a whole conversation in Chinese

Can you believe it?! Near Songzanlin Monastery
one recurring thought we had when we finally boarded was that venturing so far out to a place with one road in meant that we'd have to take that same road out. The bus passed thru the village gate and passed the row of chorten and all too soon we were back driving on the edge of nothing. Gulp!!😱

Thanks to:
😊 The kind folks at Tashi's Mountain Lodge
😊 Vibert's biggest friend and his family.
😊 Sea Thunder


This blog contains 2 videos. Hit the video tab below to view here or click this link for our YouTube post:
Sunset at Songzanlin
Mingyong Glacier
Disclaimer: We do not guarantee the appropriateness of YouTube videos other than the ones we posted.




Additional photos below
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Shangri-La boundShangri-La bound
Shangri-La bound

Road 'block'
A bus ride with breathtaking viewsA bus ride with breathtaking views
A bus ride with breathtaking views

Little did we know this was the first of many


20th December 2007

HEROS!!!
Whooooooooah!!! YOU HEROS!!! You're so brave and strong to climb up to such a high mountain. COME ON! You're the best!
25th December 2007

Adventurous
The two of you are the most adventurous people that i know.These are amazing and some i'd have to say look so insane.I would like to nominate you guys to on the 'Amazing Race.'What an adventure you guys are on.Merry Christmas!!
25th December 2007

nice
Deqin seems 2 look a little like St.Maarten when I look at the hills and so. Nice 2 c China like that. How many people living in China now??
26th December 2007

I see you two are still having fun after 7 months on the road. I hope you both had a wonderful Christmas and have a Hoppy New Year.
26th December 2007

Excellent Climbers!
Hey good things await you at the top you just have to keep on climbing! Shangri-la is truly magical \. Keep the pictures coming.
18th June 2008

hi
Hi dushies, Just wanted to say hi and tell you what a cool travelblog you guy's have!! Chris and I just came back from our travels in Australia!! Now back in Curacao, we have our own little dive shop :) Big hug and keep up the good work! Greets Chris and Rosie (formal Silent crew)

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