A 1933 novel , Lost Horizon, by James Hilton described a fantastic hidden village somewhere in the Himalayan mountain ranges. All the inhabitants are happy and dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Something mystical is going on there and the story makes use of the exoticism of the Orient and plays on the differences of that far-off place.
The term Shangrila is sometimes used in a similar fashion to the Garden of Eden. It’s a mystical place that is nearly impossible to find. It remains unspoiled from modern man and sin. Or maybe it is a place that many have searched for and few have ever found ,or the culmination of life’s work.
Flash forward to the year 2000 and now we have several different cities throughout different countries vying for the title of Shangrila to attract tourists. Now my idea of a happy place is one with tourists kept to a minimum but forget that. The city of Zhongdian in China managed to rename itself to Shangrila (Name of Hilton’s book and the village he was describing). This is where we were headed. A quick 3 or 4 hour bus trip higher and ever higher into the mountains from Tiger Leaping Gorge took us there. On the way we passed through many police checkpoints. This was due to the close proximity of Tibet. Tibet has been a rather touchy subject along with the other forbidden Ts , Tiananmen and Taiwan. Tibet requires a special permit (cough up the cash) and a travel plan to visit but this July Tibet was closed off entirely to foreign tourists. It had something to do with an important anniversary and authorities were afraid of some unrest happening. At one of the checkpoints the cops tried to shake us down for some cash. They claimed that bus drivers operating tour buses had to pay a special fee to go through the area but we weren’t a tour group. Just a bus of people who had arranged from various guesthouses in Tiger Leaping Gorge to go to Shangrila. The cops wanted something like 5 yuan from everybody. The bus driver called some local friends and through his Guanxi , system of connections, we managed to escape without anyone paying. Take that coppers!
Zhongdian itself is a mess of old gray concrete buildings. Not exactly what I would call a paradise but the old town is cool. Old town is a little mini Tibetan cultural settlement. Cobblestone streets , Tibetans in costume, store after store of trinkets , Tibetan food , and various restaurants and coffee shops. I can see this place being called a mini Lijiang , but its much smaller and less touristy.
The climate is a bit of a shock. The town is situated at 3200 meters above sea-level which led me to being a bit short of breath and rocking a little headache at times. I saw many Chinese tourists clutching little bottles of oxygen and gulping it out through a tube connected to the bottle. At first I wondered what the hell those odd sounds were but then realized it was compressed oxygen. Also being this high in the mountains means Shangrila is cold! Average daily highs in July are 19C (65F) but when we were there in July it was more like 12C (54F) and rainy. This presented a bit of a problem since I only had one pair of pants , one hoodie , no socks, and no shoes. I loved Shangrila but my feet were happy to leave! We ended up staying at an awesome hostel called Blue Field. Look for it!
Things to do in Shangrila include seeing the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet and taking in the nature of the highland plateaus. One can rent a bicycle and ride through the grasslands to Napa lake , take a cable car up Shika Mountain , go skiing at Shika mountain (if the season is right) , and ride horses. The rain, cold weather, and a little bit of laziness kinda kept us from doing those things. We used the time to huddle up in blankets , read books , and warm ourselves with Tibetan hot pot (delicious). The locals also drink Yak Butter Tea to keep warm but I’m not the biggest fan of butter so I stayed away, however Olivia loved it but said it was too rich to finish a whole cup. If rich fatty things are your cup of tea (haha) go for it.
I love to burn incense. For some reason at home it’s like I must always have one going. Chain-burning those sweet sticks one after another , lighting a new one from the smoldering ends of the last. I didn’t take any other souvenirs home with me but I loaded up on around 25 packs of Indian and Tibetan incense. A huge range of scents is offered and many from my favorite company (Darshan). These packs go for 15 RMB in Shanghai but here are a mere 6 RMB. 2.5 for the price of one!
I spent most of the rest of my time sitting up on the third floor clothes drying area of our hostel. The area has a roof overhead that is held up by wooden supports but no solid walls so it’s a great place to sit and look out over old town. It was really peaceful up there and I just watched people clutching umbrellas go down the alleyways, saw the smoke curl up from chimneys carrying enticing odors of grilled food, and watched the giant golden prayer meal from a monastery circle endlessly around. Maybe I found my own little piece of the real Shangrila there after all.
The original thinking way back in Kunming at the beginning of the Yunnan trip was after Shangrila make our way back to the unspoiled (by tourists) old town of Shaxi and then head down south into the tropical Xishuangbanna area of Yunnan. Someday I hope to make it back to Yunnan and see these other places but after drinking Beer Lao in Kunming and learning of the 28 hour sleeper bus from Kunming to Laos the idea of getting out of China and seeing a new country got cemented into my brain.
We hopped a 12 hour sleeper bus back to Kunming from Shangrila and then spent 2 days in Kunming getting me a ticket for Laos and attempting to get a visa. I went all the way to the Laos consulate to try to get a visa and then was informed only Chinese could get the visa here and that I could just go to the border and get one on arrival. Arghh!
The bus ticket to Laos costs 400RMB and is a heck of a 28 hour bus ride. The southern bus station is located far outside the city center and took me over two hours to get there by bus. The traffic was absolutely horrendous and at times we were stuck in the middle of an intersection for three consecutive red green cycles before our bus managed to squeeze through. I was getting nervous about making it on time after about 1 hour and worried as hell at an hour and half. Oh crap I’m gonna miss my bus!!! When we did finally pull up to the bus station I grabbed all my things and took off at full sprint looking for the Laos bus. It was pretty easy to spot standing out with bright tropical colors and Laos script on the side. I made it with about 2 minutes to spare. Wooo hoooo I always get excited before a new country. With that the Yunnan phase of my trip is over and the Laotian one begins!