Let me begin by saying that this entry is about the town of Zhongdian, also known as Gyalthang in Tibetan. It’s also known as Shangri-La (Shang-Ge-Li-La in Chinese, since you can’t even really say “Shangri-La” in Mandarin.) It was re-christened this by tourism authorities in 2001 after some study or other suggested that the area was the basis for the fictitious place of the same name in John Hilton’s Lost Horizon. There. Now with that dealt with I hope we can agree to never call it by that name again. That’s what I’ll be doing for the rest of this entry anyhow. What you choose is up to you, I guess.
A hilltop view out over the countryside around Zhongdian
We emerged from our three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge at the unexciting, slightly frayed, but not exactly unpleasant town of Qiaotou. We were waiting for a bus to Zhongdian to pass by when we were offered a ride by a minivan driver for only a tiny bit more than the bus ticket price. All aboard.
The drive up to Zhongdian gave us a taste of what was in store for us when we arrived and it was wonderful. The road was paved and in good shape. It wound up and up and up through pine forests along the sides of valleys carved out by mountain streams. On the horizon, snow covered peaks stood out against a brilliantly clear blue sky, clearly the brightest and least hazy we’d seen anywhere in China.
The road trailing out back towards Lijiang on our trip up towards Zhongdian
After about an hour of this we climbed up out of the narrow valleys and left the trees behind. We were in wide grassy brwon flatlands dotted with yaks and Tibetan style houses. These houses were particularly impressive as they almost looked more like fortifications than homes. Two story structures with huge thick earth walls, massive columns supporting the roof over the front facing balconies (I’ve no idea where they found trees large enough for these, given that there was scarcely a tree in sight once we were up on the plateau) and bright colours everywhere; painted window sills and door frames, prayer flags all over, even moreso than the lovely Bai and Miao homes we’d seen, the Tibetan houses were a feast for the eyes.
Now and then we’d stop to pick up or drop off additional passengers (including our first Tibetan monks since Yonghegong in Beijing, with their maroon robes and saffron accents), but it was a quick two hours up to Zhongdian. It was a largish town set in amongst hills that formed a bowl for it in the brown grasses. We got off near the entrance to the old town and, after the usual confusion about where exactly we were and cursing the uselesness of the map in the Lonely Planet guidebook, we managed to find the hostel we’d pre-booked.
That afternoon we took a short stroll around the old town, seeing a little of its tourist-friendly core before wandering off into some more lived-in bits, where ornate wood-carved facades and souvenirs for sale were replaced with mud brick walls, furious guard dogs (chained up thank goodness!) and yaks wandering the narrow alleys between the homes. Further uphill were remnants of the OLD old town, eroded mud walls scattered amongst brown vegetable gardens. From up on the hillside Zhongdian and surroundings looked astonishingly DRY. As we’d been told before, this area as well as almost all of Yunnan province was in the middle of a drought. Somehow the yaks and goats up on the hillside with me managed.
As is obvious from this photo out over Zhongdian old town, Buddhism, particularly the Tibetan variety is the dominant religion in Zhongdian. Maroon and gold buildings, bright white chortens and prayer wheels were all to be found in town
The “real” old Zhongdian
Yaks in the alleys of old Zhongdian. Probably not 300m from the brand spanking new paved streets busy with buses, taxis, jeeps and motorbikes
Later in the afternoon we saw a bit of new Zhongdian. On our walk to the bus station we encountered lots and lots of the usual concrete buildings that make up any new Chinese city. Though even the simplest ones often had hints of Zhongdian’s Tibetan architecture in there somewhere. Brightly painted borders around the windows, or maroon accents. There were also much more overt nods to the culture of the region, with some buildings such as the city hall and a fancy hotel made up to look like Tibetan monasteries/temples to the point that they’d become almost caricatures of them (though perhaps the oddest example was the memorial at the front of the cemetery of revolutionary martyrs (I still haven’t been able to work out if the occupants died during the civil war [though I don't think much went on here during the civil war] or during the campaign to “pacify” Tibetan areas.) It looked strikingly like a chorten which, given the history between the Chinese Communist Party and the Tibetan minority, was more than a little inappropriate.
Perhaps it was because the dryness made the place a bit dusty. Perhaps it was because of the Tibetan script on many shop signs. Or the Tibetan faces and dress on many of the residents. Whatever it was, even the new part of Zhongdian had a frontier town feel to it, and it was fun to poke around.
The martyr’s cemetery
Sheets left out to sun-dry blowing in the breeze. More than anything I just loved the brilliant sunshine in this photo as it had been so long since we saw anything of the sort in China!
The reason for our walk through New Zhongdian was in fact related to our reason for being in Zhongdian at all. We’d headed up here to the far northwest corner of Yunnan province in the hopes that we’d be allowed to continue still further north into western Sichuan province. This was an adventurous high altitude route through some of the most thoroughly Tibetan parts of the country that we’d dreaming of taking for a long time. Unfortunately (four our chances of visiting there anyway) western Sichuan is also one of the most active parts of the country in terms of Tibetan independence sentiments, so it is often closed off to foreigners, especially during and near to the month of March when many significant Tibetan holidays/holy days occur. We’d been e-mailing guesthouses in Zhongdian for a few weeks asking if they knew whether we’d be allowed to head north. Thusfar all the answers had been negative, though at our hostel they’d told us that the only way to be entirely certain was for us to head to the bus station ourselves and see if they’d agree to sell us the tickets.
And lo, they did. With no difficulty or argument at all. True, there was a sign posted near the ticket queues that said there was a police checkpoint on the way into Ganzi prefecture (which included Xiangcheng just over the Sichuan border and just about everywhere else we were headed) that would turn foreigners away, and they couldn’t refund your tickets if this happened. But we pointed at the sign and the lady behind the counter said we’d be okay. And we’d heard that if we were sold tickets there then we’d almost certainly be allowed to enter the region. They also told us they didn’t sell tickets more than one day in advance, but if we came back the next day we’d be good to go. The next morning I headed straight out to the station to pick up our tickets to Xiangcheng and, as promised, had no trouble buying them. And as if to add to our confidence that we’d be allowed to ride the bus to its destination, the sign discussing the police checkpoint had been taken down.
We spent the remainder of the morning taking a closer look at the old town. I’d read that Zhongdian was trying to turn itself into another Lijiang or Dali (as evidenced by the name change discussed earlier.) The process was well on its way, but wasn’t totally complete yet which, to my mind, was a good thing. There were, as in the aforementioned towns, lots and lots of souvenir shops and places selling dried yak meat and other local goods for visitors to take home. But though the area of buildings retrofitted for tourist industries was growing and growing, even in the areas where renovations of buildings were done there weren’t always enough tourist businesses in town fill all of the premises. So there were plenty of lovely carved wood facades with front windows shuttered up peacefully (for the moment anyway) and also plenty of brand new businesses getting started, such as the (still not complete) artisanal yak cheese shop we visited and the community library/handicraft shop, each of which we made a small purchase at.
The main Buddhist temple at the heart of the old town with blossoming fruit trees in the foreground
After that we took a bus out to the Zhongdian monastery. Not to visit the monastery itself, as I’m ambivalent about religious sites that have been turned into tourist attractions at the best of times, and entirely disinterested when they charge 100RMB entrance fees. Instead we hoped to just go for a walk in the hills that surround the monastery and nearby village. Not so fast. As we got off the bus at the end of the line and headed further down the road we were stopped by a… well, I’m not sure exactly what he was actually, but let’s think of him as a security guard. He insisted that we weren’t allowed any further on the road unless we bought admission tickets for the monastery. I explained that we weren’t going to the monastery, weren’t interested in going to the monastery and had already been there yesterday (three statements that descended in truth from entirely so to an outright lie) but he would have none of it. I supposed we could have just walked down the road and seen what he’d do, but in the end we decided not to force the issue.
We meandered through a rough, industrial looking part of town to what turned out to be the end of a different bus line. From there we headed uphill out of the built up area and into scrubby yak/goat pasture. We sat and enjoyed our yak cheese with some mantou (steamed bread) as we admired the view out over the city, the bright sunshine and the brilliant blue sky. The cheese had been a bit expensive, but was a delicious luxury (good cheese is hard to come by at any price in much of China) and was like a stronger, crumblier version of the yak cheese we’d had in Nepal before. Kind of like a cross between parmesan and an old cheddar.
Zhongdian city (pop. 120,000) from our lunch spot
Cheesy cheesy goodness. It went surprisingly well with the steamed bread
After lunch Sarah decided she’d had enough walking and headed home. I, meanwhilPerhaps it was because the dryness made the place a bit dusty.e, headed up to the summit of our lunchtime hill, stopping for a good while at the prayer flag covered chorten at the top. Even though we’d been up above 2500m for several days, the fact that Zhongdian sits at 3200m altitude ensured that even these smallish hills weren’t easy climbs. But there was little high vegetation, and there were plenty of animal tracks to follow, so neither were they trribly difficult. From the summit of the first hill I could see pretty much all of Zhongdian city as well as the monastery and village in the next valley over (take that security guard!) and several more hillsides, each with its own chorten on top.
Songzanlin Monastery. As I say, take that security guard.
With the surrounding village too
I’m glad it was warm up on the hills because it was more than a little windy
I headed over to another one nearby. At one point I was joined by another person out walking, perhaps 200m away. Other than him I spent the entire afternoon by myself in the hills, with birdsong and the fluttering sound of prayer flags my only company. It felt wonderful. Though it was still very near to a city, this kind of feeling is why I so often prefer tramping alone and I had very enjoyable afternoon.
My final hill of the day was considerably higher than the first two, but the views over the mountains, huge tracts of pasture and Zhongdian city were the best of the day. Its chorten was accompanied by a small shrine and even more prayer flags than the first two. I wasn’t really keeping track of time at all (it was that kind of afternoon) but I suspect sat up there for about an hour, watching the shadows of the clouds creep across the valleys and hillsides all around.
Yak pasture from near the saddle between my last two hills
It would’ve taken a (religiously!) dedicated person to haul all of the materials for this up the hill
From left to right, the hilltop shrine, Songzanlin monastery and it’s village, the edge of Zhongdian city
Walking down was much easier than the way up, and I ended up heading the whole way back to our hostel on foot, grabbing a big drink and sitting on the rooftop with Sarah watching the sunset not long after I arrived home.
The next morning we got a taxi to the bus station (we were off before city buses were even running) and, grabbing a few more Mantou to eat with our yak cheese, we were on our way north to Western Sichuan.
Pool tables, including lots of outdoor ones like this were popular in Zhongdian. How on earth would you level a pool table in a situation like this?!
Zhongdian market, which I stumbled upon on my walk home. Though Tibetan and Han Chinese make up most of the city’s residents, there are still plenty of Naxi, Bai and Lisu minorities around as well
Tags: China, Gyalthang, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Yunnan, Zhongdian