Two weeks in Shangri-la (A Vacation from my Vacation)

When I started this trip, Shangri-la was not among my must-sees. Why not? Because I didn’t know it was a real place. Actually, I didn’t know that it was a fake place either. Confused? Me too. I think I had probably heard the name before, but might have had Shangri-la and Xanadu mixed up in my head. In any case, the road somehow brought me here, so I’ll give you the lowdown.

Sometime in the early 1900s, a dude named James Hilton wrote a novel called Lost (or was it Last?) Horizon in which some people somehow get stuck in a place called Shangri-la. Over the years, many places in China, Tibet, and Bhutan have claimed to have been the inspiration for the paradise in the book. Sometime in the late 1900s, the towns of Dali and Lijaing (see previous posts) became insanely popular with tourists. About 200km north of Lijiang – itself 200km north of Dali – lay poor little Zhongdian, equally rustic but with Tibetan rather than Naxi or Bai minority influence. Hoping to suck in some tourist dollars, Zhongdian one-upped all the rest by actually changing its name to “Shangri-la.”

So, it’s not the magical place the name may lead you to imagine, though as you have seen (and will continue to see), the roads to and from SL boast some fantastic scenery. The city itself is mostly a little maze of cobblestone roads, overpriced foreign restaurants, and stores selling yak combs, embossed knives, and shawls, surrounded by a normal (by which I mean wonderful in its own way) crappy Chinese mini-city.

Nonetheless, SL does have some things going for it. For one, it’s not yet overcrowded like Dali and Lijiang. For two, horses and pigs wander around most of the city at will. For three, Tibetan people are friendly and wear sweet clothes. For four, I had a great couchsurfing host who let me use the kitchen and said I could stay as long as I wanted. For five, the Chilean bartender at Tantro Restobar kept giving me free drinks.

Also, the snow and cold made it just about physically impossible for me to leave. It was so cold that I borrowed a pair of my hosts’s long underpants. So cold that I wore them while sleeping, on the spare bed, in my sleeping bag, under two comforters. Now it’s two weeks and a day since Hyeongnim and I numb-fingerdly rolled into the city. I only just escaped its awesome, laid-back clutches yesterday. On to the good stuff:

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Koreans love hiking and trekking, so often make SL a base to visit the surrounding mountains. So, some restaurants cater to Koreans – surprisingly well. I’m pretty sure it was this bowl of cold buckwheat noodles that made Hyeongnim homesick. Three days later he caught a series of buses to Chengdu, and two days after that he flew home, ending his one-year, sixteen-thousand kilometer journey.

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형님 안녕히 잘ㄹㄹ 가…시…게. I pray your bum and your bicycle survive the 1000 kilometers of bumpy mountain roads you’re about to ride over.

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I didn’t let him leave without cooking for me, though. His wife promised he would.

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I pretended like I wanted to cook a meal for our CS host, but the truth was I just wanted Hyeongnim to make me some legit Korean food. Pictured: squash pancakes. Not pictured: eggplant pancakes, cold spinach side, mushroom stir-fry, sweet/spicy chicken soup.

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My host, Jessica, on the left, and her friend Sam on the right. SL being an immensely small town and having very few non-tourist foreigners, we hung out just about every day. On some days, we even hung out several times. This is how I know that Jessica won’t mind if I do a little Grandpa impersonation here: “Is that a diamond on your nose? No, it’s SNOT!” In this case, of course, it is indeed a diamond. I would like to thank you very much for putting up with me for the better half of a month. You are a lovely, kind, generous, awesome, forgiving person.

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And adventurous! I have a feeling my next place will be pretty similar to Jessica’s: mostly empty except for books, a stocked pantry, and all of the gear I’ll need so that I can hit the road again when the opportunity presents itself.

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Old town; what Lijiang would look like if Chinese yuppie/hippie clothes were actually invisibility cloaks.

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The “Sacred Site” turned out to be…the world’s largest prayer wheel!

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It takes about 10-15 people to get it moving.

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Jessica’s friend Lhamo somehow knew this guy, the head of the Shangri-la photography association, and somehow wrangled me into a car trip to visit a rich monk’s house?

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What’s in the kettle?

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Tibetan butter tea! Made by dropping yak butter into black tea. Kind of like Chai, except without sugar and smelling like microwave popcorn. Too rich for my blood. Fun fact: after you drink most of the tea, if you’re hungry, you can drop a few spoonfulls of barley flour (left) into the cup, squish it all together with your right hand, and make yourself a bit of Tsompa (Tsampa?), which everyone describes as the Tibetan equivalent of a Clif bar. In the sense that it’s dense, grainy-tasting, and guaranteed to give you the energy you need to cycle the next 50km. It’s true, the stuff packs a punch. I’d love to make it on the road, but then I’d have to carry around a big chunk of butter.

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Afterwards, a little walk with Sam and her friends

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Up to White Chicken (or was it Hundred Chicken?) Temple.

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Praying by burning incense and pine, then tossing barley flour all over.

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Tibetan guys can wear whatever the hell they want and still look crazy awesome. Ugz, sweatpants, a poofy jacket, and prayer beads.

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No idea what eveyrone was looking at.

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Shangri-la from above. Note the little white pagoda wayyyyy in the background…

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Dinner at Sam’s beautiful place in old town. New Town Shangri-la is just like any other Chiense city, with tons of cheap little dingy eateries where a dollar buys you either six dumplings or a plate of noodles. In old town, on the other hand, you can pay ten dollars for a plate of strawberries. Nine if you get the discount that they give locals. My stinge-stincts kicked in pretty rapidly, and I pushed for home-cooked meals. Even cooked a few.

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Out to a bar where five employees in Tibetan garb took turns doing some uninspired dancing and then some pretty impressive throat warbling. In the meantime, Lhamo working hard on a drawing…

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Then the dance floor opened up. Cardigan dude did a super-sexy high-stepping agresso-charge dance, while another taught me how to do the gorilla. And some girl smacked my ass when I tried it out. Success!

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Aaaaand wholesome fun at home! Salads with apples and corn, sweet potato/ginger soup, pasta with asparagus. This is how you bribe your couchsurfing host into letting you stay for two weeks.

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Going for a hike.

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A little memento mori on the way up.

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6 Responses to Two weeks in Shangri-la (A Vacation from my Vacation)

  1. 썌키 says:

    Seriously, why are tibetan people so sexy?

  2. Mom says:

    Lost Horizon

  3. mingyulee says:

    !!!!!!! 요 맨~
    잘 댕기고 있네~ 네가 짱! You da man!

  4. drftr says:

    It’s such a shame we’re not going to meet up in Nujiang Valley – especially since you seem to be a vegetarian as well. In a couple of days I’m heading to Zhongdian and then further up northwest. Enjoy your adventures and please keep on writing!

    • Michael Roy says:

      Too bad, indeed! Within a few hours of arriving here I met a few Israeli guys who are planning a couple of hikes throughout the region. You’ll probably run into them in Deqin if you’re there a week from now. Happy travels!