My turn to flag today.
We’ve run out of food, or food we don’t need to cook anyway. We’re so close to our destination, but so far. The hill we started climbing yesterday, that we always knew we’d have to climb to get there lies in front of us.
This hill is slow and my stomach is growling.
My arm is hurting from my crash, every time I go over a bump in the road it aches.
I suppose it wouldn’t be Shangri La if it wasn’t a trial to get there.
We make it eventually, skimming the edge of a lake we are surprised to see. It, like so many things round here, wasnt on our map. By the look of things it’s not really meant to be here at all – we spot fences and vehicles half submerged. A rubbish sorting station has become an island several meters from dry land. It makes for a scenic if surreal entry in to the fabled land.
This place has been on my radar for many months , at least since we started to invent our Chinese visa application in Tbilisi.
What, there’s really a Shangri-la?
And we can go there?
Right let’s do it.
I realise now this was probably the reaction the Chinese tourism agency were hoping for when they announced that they had discovered the mystical land in 2001, renaming the existing town of Zhongdian.
They picked a good spot for it though. High on the edge of the Tibetan mountains. Thin air, clear skies, breathtaking views.
Unfortunately the town suffered a big fire a few years ago, the tourism boom partially responsible, caused by some dodgy wiring in a guesthouse. The old town has been rebuilt but doesn’t feel tacky as is so often the way, its nice to wander through.
The trade is almost soley aimed at visitors.
It’s hard to tell whether the shops contain genuine traders selling beautiful bells and singing bowls, traditional garments and paintings or Chinese knock-offs (umm… can you have Chinese knock-offs of Chinese goods?)
Every sign in town is written in Chinese, Tibetan and English. We begin to suspect that the English translator was having a laugh. Across China we’ve seen some brilliant ones, such as Bohai Roping Amorous Feelings, Guangkang Bomb Florist, The Popular Front, Fat Girls Snack Bar and my personal favourite Ordinary Hair.
We visit the main monestary in town, and help to haul the enormous prayer wheel round. It takes six people to get it going, apparently, though I suspect it depends on the people. We saw a dozen or so struggling…
In the evening we come through the main square. Crowds of people are dancing in two concentric circles. We’ve seen similar dances before, but this one is different by the sheer variety of people participating.
In the centre ring there’s a number of women in traditional Tibetan dress, they clearly know what they’re about. There’s small children mimicking the movements of the rest. There’s young women who show varying levels of enthusiasm. There’s young men, some shuffling their feet, hands deep in their pockets only to be removed when the dance requires a hand- flutter to the right or the left. One older man catches my eye, he’s dressed in camo which juxtaposes wonderfully with his frolicking. I’m sure he’d click his heels if the dance allowed for interpretation.
But it doesn’t, everyone steps the same steps, turns together.
I’m told later by the friendly woman at our hostel that it happens every night, that it’s a traditional Tibetan dance and that you learn the steps as a child by joining in.
I’m reminded of ceilidhs I went to as a child, down at the village hall. Not grand affairs, you just went along and joined in, learning the steps as you went. The point was being there and being together, forming a community by dancing together.
The music on this occasion is not traditional, unfortunately. It’s pretty awful, piped too loudly from speakers around the square.
We wander on to visit the local reggae bar, sadly almost deserted on a Sunday night. Maybe they were all out at the Tibetan ceilidh.
Evoking images of paradise, a harmonious and happy land.
It’s not the place for us, nice as it is.
The road to Shangri La was hard and trying and really some of the most beautiful road we’ve been on.
Maybe our Shangri La is the road to Shangri La…