The next morning I am enjoying breakfast and online when Jane (or her replacement) asks if i'm going to Shangri La – beause they are organising a mini bus – swweeeett.
So with minimal effort on my part I hurriedly shut down the computer and get on board. It takes around another 2 hours to get to Shangri la – formerly Zhongdian district on the border of Yunnan province and Tibet. You can only get into Tibet as part of a tour group as a Westerner – but my tour into Tibet was cancelled by the Chinese authorities – official reason – change in requirements means they need 5 of each nationality in a tour group for it to be viable. Unofficial reason – I suspect - is because of the recent immolations (setting fire to oneself) from Tibetan monks in protest at the Chinese handling of Tibet and fear of the Western media.
Although the bus is one of the better i've been on in China the journey up North is truly terrifying – as we ascend the mountains on a perilously windy mountain path – the hill side becomes shrouded in mist. On my right there is a sharp drop with only an occasional calf height barrier that breaks away every now and again -the driver can't see two foot in front of him and in the other lane is oncoming traffic. If I was a Christian I would start crossing myself about now – I can't bear to look so I keep my eyes tight shut and just hope its over soon. Gradually we start to descend a lttle bit towards town and the mists begin to clear.
Shangri La was renamed in a marketing ploy to attract more tourists to the area and references the James Hilton book -The Lost paradise which is where the name first appeared. Shangri la – a fictional place, a paradise. You can see the landscape alter as we move towards Tibet – the dark wooded mountains of the gorge rise and fall and rise again into the vast snowy peaks heralding Tibet.
The bright lime green of the paddy fields blur into into the dark green cabbagy patches of leaf vegetables and fields starbursted with bright scarlet shrubs. The The locals are all tanned a deep nut brown because of the intense mountain heat and have bright pink candy apple cheeks. Their clothes are brightly multi coloured woolen scarves wrapped around heads and little fat cheeked babies papoosed to their back.
The bus deposits us somewhere and I get an ungracious female cab driver to drop me near the old town. Zhondian or Shangri La is huge – I was expecting a couple of windy roads, the odd hairy yak wandering down the street, bright glistening mountains against a china blue sky and yocals laughingly welcoming me into their home. No not quite – its pouring with rain, the new town is large and neon and the first thing I see is a Nike. I get deposited outside the old town which is a few criss crossing streets of tourist tat- and think Shangril La? - Shangril'aint'.
N' kitchen is the hostel i've booked. I go in and am ignored for a good 10 minutes. I finally make my way to a crammed dormitory with a cleaner singing tunelessley. I put my back pack down and start to take my shoes off, when I pick it up again its covered in a white powder. I don't know why -but I know STRAIGHT away what it is. I look at the wall where it was lying and I can't see anything. I cover my hand with my jumper and wipe it off. I look again more closely – there are holes in the wall with little innocent white crystals poking out. Its asbestos. I know this because I was FORCED to attend a presentation on the subject at work. Out of the entire 30,000 strong company I was one of the last to go. Although i've worked in the property industry for years I really didn't see the relevance for a marketer. To give credit where its due – the man who insisted on making the presentation mandatory for all employees had lost his father to asbestos poisoning and gave as passioned and interesting a presentation as could be given on the subject .It was also terrifying – how evil, corrosive and noxious the substance is – and how you just shouldn't ever EVER come into contact with it. Unfortunatley since then – and maybe because of that presentation and my penchant for travelling in third world countries where asbestos regulataions don't apply i seem to have done nothing but come into contact with it. In
South America two years ago I went down a silver mine in Bolivia where the guide cheefully told us we were leaning on raw asbestos and now this.
Bet you are glad you are reading my blog now aren't you?? – sod Fifty Shades of Grey i'm referencing the Asbestos Regulations of the 1970s. Rock and Roll people.
I wipe the stuff off as best I can, put my jumper in the wash (which in hindsight probably just dispersed it amongst the rest of my clothes) and tell them i'm leaving again.
I find a hostel down the road and move in there. There is no restaurant or cafe attached and the beds are all lind up in two vertical rows so that people sleep head to toe - but the walls and floor are wood lined so I take it. I go out in the pouring rain and am already out of sorts – I think "I shouldn't need good weather to like a place and have a good time..." but...ohhhhh i kind of do!!!
The next morning a gentle Japanese student - 19 year old Dai – asks if I want to go for a walk. So we head out and have a little wander round. It is absolutely freezing. I suppose I should have known this – we are near the mountains – the little streets are lined with over priced mountain gear, woollen scarves and pashminas. Dai ends up buying a beautiful dark blue and violet scarf that he lends me in the dorm room. He then heads off to the monastery -which is the main – no only sight to do here... and I have a walk around town. At 115 Y to get in – i'm going to give it a miss – its only around twelve pounds but is also under rennovation at the moment and has apparently become very touristy with the monks trying to flog you their home made medicine.
The sun comes out and when it does its very very strong and of course everything looks a little better. I have a little look around the back strets – the street food are pickled eggs, fried baba (the Tibetan unleavened bread) which Dai buys for breakfast and Bao dzur – steamed buns filled with meat. I buy some bracelets of silver shapes on red string and a turquoise pendant. The main square – has a free museum with propaganda written by the Chinese Government in worship of the Red Army. They have locals in traditional dress you can have your photo with and a man with a huge hairy tibetan dog in a scarf – that I reluctantly part with a quid to get snapped with. I do like big hairy dogs quite a lot though.
There is also a temple in the main square and the walk up has me wheezing and the lactic acid beginning to burn in my calves. At 3200m high Shangri La is one of the highest cities in the world (sometimes called The rooftop paradise) I'm lucky I don't get altitude sickness (some people vomit or feel nauseous from it) but I do feel a little lightheaded and the beer at lunch probably didn't help! The Traditional Tibetan temple is decorated with streams and streams of pastel coloured flags and at the top there is a huge bright gold Dharma wheel with ropes attached that you can grab hold off and help keep turning. At one point it stops and everyone makes a pitying whine - until some more people grab hold and join in. I make my way back to the hostel and en route find myself standing outside a cafe with the bloody Arsenal Crest on the front. Typical! i think. You come all the way to the border of Tibet up 3500 metres surrounded by nothing but mountains and toothless locals and yaks and what do you see - Bloody Arsenal...well they have just renamed it Shangri La!
Our dorm is joined by a few more people – a bubbly little chap from Hong Kong called Marco, Mark – a short Southhamptonite with a strangely bristolian accent and Georgia - a Bristol university student with baby face who manages to last about 12 hours before deciding that Shangri la isn't her cup of Yak milk butter tea.
Mark and I decide not to do the monastery but instead visit the Temple of 100 chickens. After what seems like a lifetime's walk we get to the top of a hill and am greeted with the brightly coloured bunting that is traditional here. Two monks in dark red robes greet us as we pay our respects inside and walk around the perimeter, a chicken obligingly stands in the doorway for a photo opportunity. The sun has come out again and on the way up the hill locals are sitting and chatting. You get a beautiful view over the whole of Shangri La from here with the mountains in the distant- and for free. Well worth a visit.
That evening we are all planning on shipping out as soon as possible- its cold and there is really nothing to do. Marcus and Dai have been to the Napa national park which costs around 30 quid and worth it if you ca afford it. I would come back only with more money and time and a companion who could either drive a bike or a car into the surruonding countryside. Mark and I have had a yak cheeseburger for lunch – juicy and salty!
At around 4pm I say..."right lets get pissed then shall we?" ...
"It doesn't matter how old you are... (what's he trying to say)
or where you are from in the UK" says Mark...."If you end up in a town with nothing to do for the day and the weather is crap there is only ever one solution - getting pissed." Its true! I'm more British than i thought...
And decide to spend the money we've saved not going to the monstary on sharing a yak hot pot for dinner. It comes in a huge black earthen ware carved pot that has glowing embers at the bottom to keep the stew hot. The meat is on the bone and surrounded by root vegetbles and glass noodles in a soupy broth that gets topped up by a waitress from a tea pot. We order some barley bread to go with it and a long awaited beer and tuck in. It tastes great. time.
The next day I say goodbyes to the boys who are heading back to Lijian and head back to Dali –one of my favourite places so far - where i'm hoping its warmer...