Shangri-La. This isn’t the Chinese version of the Tibetan icon, this is the Chinese equivalent of that particular strain of Buddhism, nature, and temperament of the people that live only a 24-hour drive with a 4×4 vehicle away from the autonomous region of Tibet. Geographically speaking, this is still the same region, only on the side of the Mainland China. Culture and nature pay no mind to political borders, so thankfully we can experience Tibet without having to leave Mother China.
The Chinese Shangri-La is actually called Zhongdian and is a cool city in the mountains, where, even as summer stands at the doorstep, selling ski jackets and woolen pants will garner a sizable financial profit.
Not only is it chilly, the wind cuts, and thus shapes the surrounding landscape into naked hills and mountains as far as the eyes can see. The presence of humans can be seen in ropes draped in colorful rags, inscribed with prayers and swaying playfully in the wind. This is a spiritual place, both figuratively and literally.
Apart from the older part of town, you might want to visit the Songzanlin monastery. Some say it is a miniature version of the Tibetan monastery by the name Lhasa Potala. It didn’t seem very small to us – it took us all of two hours to properly admire it in its entirety and climb just about a hundred steps at three thousand meters above sea level, all while trying not to get sunburnt.
Monks calmly drifted about the courtyards and the large prayer rooms, carried away in their daily activities or blessing visitors for a humble donation. Even this small business venture could not ruin the stunning beauty of the bright white stupas covered in thousands of colorful swaying pieces of cloth. There was a small lake near the monastery, which we used to add a mirror effect to our pictures. Unfortunately it was also in our way to the monastery. Thankfully we went around, rather than swim through it.
More beauty awaited us, not too far away – we got to the Pudacuo Scenic Area on a small black road. There we found the Xiagei Tibetan Village and the Bita and Shudu Lakes, and our quota for walks by bodies of water for the day was fulfilled.
The place had less of a spiritual and more of natural character, and each season changed it so intensely that it was almost unrecognizable. We could enjoy vast plains, wild little horses and a walk on a wooden platform on the lake, which was almost four kilometers long.
|The new tourist attraction|
|A mysterious island|
Unusual places breed unusual people. We picked up such a guide at the Tiger Leaping Gorge and let him immerse us in the local atmosphere. He might not have been the best guide in China, but he makes us smile and laugh and we remember him fondly. If you like him, are female and up to 32-years-old, we can set you up. You’ll understand why in a bit.
Mere minutes after our meet up with Junji (unfortunately we cannot unveil his name, as we couldn’t pronounce it), we were bombarded with queries about any single female relatives we might have. He was guiding our group of two women and one man, and he quickly focused on the lady he’d have more success with, which was fun for me and annoying for Marty. And so we were showered with compliments – Bulgarian woman are allegedly extraordinarily beautiful and have incredible figures – and Junji constantly asked to take a picture with us. I had fun, but Nace and Marty became agitated…
Junji was searching for a woman of a maximum of 32 years (Junji himself is 37), hopefully even younger, who speaks English and is ideally Bulgarian. Marty’s youth he commented on repeatedly. Such was our entire walk about the Tiger Leaping Gorge. After that we impatiently left again for Shangri-La, as we had planned to have an afternoon to ourselves.
|Photo of the day|
Fate wasn’t done with us, however, and displayed its sense for tragicomedy. As we drove along on a road with four lanes, a small herd of Chinese citizens – two women, an old man and a Dalai Lama (not a llama, but a respected monk and follower of lamaism) – started to cross in front of us.
The driver braked very soon, but the old man stopped as well, and despite our best efforts to avoid him, he still somehow managed to jump under the car. He writhed, then walked to the side of the road to sit down, where he pretended to have broken his leg. The Lama and the women joined him – one of the women had an axe (why? we don’t know). And then the quarrel began. They asked for just around 1000 (about 500 Euro) BGN from the driver. With some bargaining we managed to bring it down to 300 BGN (1000 yuan). We left affronted.
|Junji bargaining actively on our part|
Junji helped us find lodging and even came with us to our room, forgetting to leave. He didn’t seem to mind that no one was paying attention to him either – one of us was using the phone, the other the bathroom and so on. Junji asked for our Chinese numbers, so we might keep in touch. It was difficult to get him to leave, but eventually he did, though just as we were starting to find the whole situation rather amusing, there was a knock on our door. Junji had come to return our passports from the reception. This time we locked the door behind him and waited a few minutes to make sure he had really left.
On the next day the compliments evolved.
Nace was their main recipient for not deigning to sit next to Junji on the bus. First he was wise, because he was silent; then it was his beautiful long arm hairs, which Junji could apparently not grow himself. We still haven’t mentioned his actual competence as a guide – it really came down to Junji repeating things three times, not knowing the answers to most questions or even the actual temple we were visiting. On the other hand he did try to seduce us into joining a race on some steps some 3000 meters above sea level.
At 11 o’clock he invited us to lunch.
We were not hungry at the time, which made achieving his goal rather difficult – he was trying to convince us that we had a difficult six hours ahead of us. Eventually he agreed to buy us some fruit, so we went to the bazaar. He also bought cheese dumplings and was entirely surprised that no one wanted to eat them even though he had been slapping them against the wall while carrying them. Then we headed towards China’s oldest national park – Junji explained to us five times what a national park is. Thankfully we could ignore him fairly successfully and the last four to five hours were pleasant enough.
|Yup. Wouldn’t it be lovely to race up and down these steps…|
Junji told us about some traditional Tibetan dances in town – a rare occurrence. He had to save us spots for dinner. We were to meet at ten to seven in the hotel lobby and go see the dance at half past seven, as they were allegedly close by. When the time came, he wanted us to take a taxi. We asked why, if the place was close. He said it was 700 meters away, so we proposed we walk. Walk we did, yet, when we got to the supposed place, Junji started to look around in a panic. Something smelled very fishy indeed.
At 7:25 we decided we’d had enough and left Junji on the verge of tears. We had dinner at the second Western food venue in the city. At one point Junji popped up and we were surprised he had found us. He made excuses about us being at the right place, and the event allegedly being moved last minute. At least he didn’t sit to eat with us.
|Walking around the monastery with Junji|
On the last day Junji drove us to the airport.
The staff there was even less competent than he and almost lost our permission (on paper) to leave China, forgot to reserve one of our tickets, acted rudely and spoke no English. To top it off our friend Junji gave us a feedback form (and we didn’t spare him). I did pity him at the end so I promised to get him in touch with a fitting woman if I ever found one. He didn’t give us a chance to miss him. On the very next day he called us to ask if everything was alright.
Unusual people in usual places indeed.
This article was brought to you in English by Nick Kotsev.