21 November, 2007

No.25: Yunnan - Shangri La

Shangri La
9th-12th August 2007
I took a short break and posted a different topic in between. I'd like to continue with my travel account of Yunnan Province during the summer holiday. Though it's long gone now, but it's still fresh in my mind.

After our Lijiang visit my two friends and I proceeded on to Shangri La. It took us 7 hours by a mini-bus from Lijiang. We were warmly welcomed by C (a Mizo, who used to study in Shillong) and her Singaporean husband J who owns a villa-type hotel there. The hotel is made of wooden and is two storeys. It's quite luxurious with glass slide as the outer door, king sized bed made cozy with electric blanket for the chilly weather, a kitchen and a cool and sophisticated shower capsule. To top it off...they wouldn't let us pay for it!! I'm very grateful to C&J for their hospitality. J advised us not to take shower the day we arrived as we were at an elevation of 3700m above sea level in order to avoid headache and latitude sickness but to first get used to the weather and high elevation.

The original name of this place is Zhongdian, and was renamed as Shangri La in 1977 which means "the sun and moon in heart" in Tibetan. Yunnan Province promotes this place as the real Shangri La from the fictitious mountaintop Utopia of James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon". Many people believe this to be the place mentioned in the novel. Also, with the adoption of this novel in the big screen by Frank Kapra four years after the novel was published, it gained popularity that stirs up a longing for this dreamy and mystical paradise making the town a hot spot for many foreigners from all over the world. Most of us may know this name by the hotel chain all over the world.

Although Shangri La is located in the north-west of Yunnan Province, the people there are mostly Tibetan. It's located only about 300 kilometres from the Yunnan-Tibet border. It is much higher than Lijiang and is divided into old town and new town. It is a pretty old town with lots of well preserved Tibetan houses with wooden structures and twisting and narrow cobblestone and dirt roads. Everything is made and smells of wood. The weather is cold enough to require a jacket in the day and quite chilly in the evening. Even in summer it remains between 15-20 degree Celsius with constant rain.

Near our hotel is a big square where several barbeque stalls are set up during the daytime. The barbeque ranges from meat to roasted vegetables like potato, mushroom etc and dried bean-curd in skewers for 1 or 2 yuan a piece. This very same square is cleared up in the evening and the whole town seems to gather here and dance to the traditional Tibetan music with a modern dance beat blaring through the sound system. At first, they would dance in a big circle and gradually a concentric circle is formed as more people joined up. It's an exhilarating and fantastic sight. There were old women with the Tibetan traditional garb and young/teenage girls in their designer clothes, old and young men...some with business suit :) all dancing joyously and in perfect unison. Anyone can join them and it was especially fascinating to see many foreigners dancing with the local people at the bouncy and danceable Tibetan music. I too joined in and found that the dance steps weren't complicated and quite easy to pick up. I believe the dancing to be more of a regular community thing and not solely for tourists.

A little bit down the road is a Buddhist Temple on a hill with an enormous prayer wheel spinning overhead and is said to be the biggest at 24 meters tall. We had to climb up steep steps to reach the temple. Personally, I consider this prayer wheel to be the greatest icon in Shangri La. The prayer wheel is so enormous that it takes several people to turn it. We can also get a very good view of the old and new town of Shangri La from the Temple.

The following day we arrived, J drove us to a new ski resort which is still under construction about an hour's drive away from the main city. My guess is that the government has poured in a lot of funds in Shangri La to attract more tourists. We didn't stay long there and J dropped us off halfway in the city. The three of us then proceeded on for the famed Shangri La Monastery about 3 hours north out of town. It's a 300 year old monastery called Songzanlin Si, the largest monastery in Yunnan Province, and the main attraction in Shangri La. It was named after the famous Tibetan king, Songzan and built by the Fifth Dalai Lama. It's an imitation of the Potala Palace in Tibet and is considered as the smaller Potala, still...massive and impressive. We went in a crowded mini bus full of foreigners and the locals living there and the ride was bumpy, dusty and quite uncomfortable. We were told about a backside way and found it to be under renovation. Soon, the monastery will have walls all around built like a fortress.

The monastery is composed of two lamaseries, Zhacang and Jikang. It is quite dark inside the temples and has massive hall with giant buddhas, prayer mats, huge donation boxes, incense, frescos in bright colors depicting gods, demons and legends. Every time I visit a Buddhist monastery in any parts of China, I'm struck with this feeling of familiarity of the gods and demons with that of the Hindus in India. Many of the temples has gods with many hands (pretty much like Kali Ma, one of the Hindu goddesses) and the demons looks very similar to the ones from the Hindu faith. I reckon that the Buddhist gods in China are from a mixture of the Hindu and Buddhist religion. The temples are mostly windowless and lack of light inside the temple often makes me feel like suffocating. However, Buddhist temples are always one of the main attractions in all the Provinces and places I've visited in China. Sadly, I'm the least interested in Temples but almost always have to visit them on joining a tour group.

On the third day, we hired a van and headed for "Bai Shui Tai" (white water terraces) located about 101 kilometers southeast to Zhongdian County. I wasn't sure what to expect as we headed for this place but soon found out to be a tufa (limestone terrace) formation, pretty much like the ones in Jiuzhaigou.The road is narrow and zigzagged but with few traffic. It is situated in Baidi Village. We had a hard time trying to find a decent restaurant for lunch and had to settle for a dingy, dirty and ill-serviced one as there was no other choice. And the food was terrible! To make things worse, while we were on our way to the main attraction, climbing steep and hundreds of steps, my friend L started to show symptoms of allergy and was quite distressed. Probably from the food we just had. We were quite alarmed as we didn't take any medicine with us. In short, our Bai Shui Tai visit didn't turn out quite as expected.

On our last night, J&C invited us for dinner with 2 other Singaporeans. We had a lovely time and greatly enjoyed the Indian food C cooked for us. We got to eat dhal, papad and curry (prepared with Indian 'masala'), which is quite a treasure in China but often taken for granted while in India. And of course, after dinner and the following day, we got to sing our hearts out concluding a superb stay in this mystical land.

I've heard of the novel "Lost Horizon" but hadn't actually read it. Having visited the much talked about Shangri La, I bought a copy at Kunming Airport on my way back to Xi'an. Got lots of time on the plane and turns out to be a fascinating read. It would have been more interesting had I read the novel before visiting the place. Quite the other way round eh? But as the saying goes..."Better late than never"!


  1. I now officially proclaim you "Jinx Vanlal Yunnan-i"


  2. Illu..no worries...not for long :)