June 6-7, 2009
From Lijiang we proceeded north.
Our plan was to catch a bus to Daju, then hike westward along the Tiger Leaping Gorge to Qiaotou, and then catch a bus north to Shangri-La. But at the Lijiang bus station we were informed that there’s no bus to Daju. So, we reversed our plans and caught a bus straight north to Shangri-La.
Beautiful views on our bus ride from Lijiang to Shangri-La:
So, is this *the* Shangri-La? No, not really. The town’s original name is Zhongdian. A few years ago the provincial government renamed it to Shangri-La in the hopes of boosting tourism. The original Shangri-La is a mythical city from James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon. It doesn’t really exist anywhere.
Still, it’s a nice place to visit. Like Lijiang, it’s split into two parts: a boring modern Chinese-influenced area, and a pretty tourist-oriented old-town. We found Shangri-La’s old town to be not quite as nice as Lijiang’s, but also not nearly as crowded.
Pnina entering Shangri-La’s old town:
My hiking pants were falling apart, so I was in the market for a new pair. There are a lot of shops with outdoor gear in Shangri-La, but their prices were not much better than prices back home (obviously inflated). While hunting around for a better deal, Pnina noticed a sign for a shop called Turtle Mountain Gear. We eventually found the shop in a back alley. It was run by three bold guys, brothers as it turned out. In the yard in front of the shop we noticed a peculiar thing: they had one of those poles with arrows pointing to major world cities and giving the distances, and among the list was Seattle! Seattle?? We asked why they included it, and sure enough – these guys are from Seattle. They moved to China with their family nearly 20 years ago, and they’ve lived here ever since (they’re probably among the very few blonds who are fluent in Chinese). They’ve been in Shangri-La for the last 10 years. Their parents work for an NGO that helps local Tibetan villagers try to control environmental impact brought by tourism. And the three sons run this Turtle Mountain Gear shop, where most of the proceeds go to the NGO. Most of their money comes from motorcycle tours they lead into the mountains. They also make a little money selling backpacker gear. And their prices were much better – 35 yuan for a pair of “Columbia” hiking pants (as compared to 150 in other shops). We didn’t end up joining them for any of the tours because we were short on time. But if you’re in the area you should check them out. They even have cheap *cold* beer!!
Pnina and Josiah in front of the Seattle sign at Turtle Mountain Gear in Shangri-La:
More random sights around Shangri-La…
Strangely modern furniture in front of a western-oriented restaurant in old town:
Pnina standing with a local woman in old town’s central square. We saw a lot of women wearing these “graduation-style” hats in northwest Yunnan. It must be a traditional thing for some tribe (there are so many different cultures in Yunnan, it’s hard to keep up). We bought a bracelet from her stand just so we could take a photo 🙂
Yak cheese we sampled at the Shangri-La Cheese Shop. There were two kinds: new and aged. The aged one tasted a little like smoked gouda. Both were good. I was hoping to have a yak cheese burger, but unfortunately they didn’t have any.
Heading out of old town, we entered the modern part of Shangri-La. Here we found another town square, a much bigger one. In the evening people come here to play different carnival-style games. In this photo you can see a bunch of cigarette boxes in the foreground; if you manage to roll a wobbly ring onto one of them, you get it. In the back there’s a Thanka museum we chose to skip:
Huge crane statues in a lake on the opposite end of the same square:
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery
According to our guidebook, the star attraction in Shangri-La is the huge Ganden Sumtseling Monastery just north of town, so we went to check it out. We climbed on bus #1, which we heard would take us all the way to the monastery. When the bus dropped us off, we were disappointed – all the buildings were too modern and plain. Then we realized that this was not the monastery at all – this was just the ticket office! We were escorted to the ticket booth and then told to wait for a different bus to take us the rest of the way to the monastery. Oh, and the price was not 30 yuan (as our book suggested), it was 85 yuan! We later learned that all this stuff, the higher price and the shiny tourist busses, are all new as of one month ago! What crappy luck. Prior to that you could still pay 30 yuan and take the same bus #1 all the way to the monastery. Today bus #1 still goes to the monastery but it won’t take any tourists. This is all a fund-raising scheme for the monastery. The guys at Turtle Mountain Gear said that the head monks at the monastery are some of the richest, most powerful people in town. Strange. We never thought of monks as power-hungry types.
Anyhow, the monastery itself was interesting. It was pretty similar to some of the monasteries we saw on the way to Lhasa in Tibet, so if you’re not heading to Tibet this is a decent alternative. More interesting for us is the fact that construction crews were in the process of tearing down one of the three temples at the top, in preparation for building a new temple. We saw a big tractor carving away at a wall, destroying old frescoes. Maybe there was a good reason to rebuild, but it was hard to watch.
Looking at Ganden Sumtselling Monastery from the front. At the top you can see two temples. The empty space in the middle is the third temple, which was almost fully town down:
Heading up to the temples:
Impressive, colorful woodwork:
Construction crew overseeing the tearing-down of the middle temple:
A tractor cutting away at the back wall. If you look closely you can see some Buddhist wall paintings being destroyed in the process:
Huge Prayer Wheel
The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery was interesting, but we were still bummed for getting stuck with the inflated entry fee. Pnina disliked the whole idea of paying to see a holy place. In her mind it should be donation-based. So we made a promise to each other that we wouldn’t pay to see any more monasteries in China 🙂
Back in Shangri-La’s old town we walked around and found another interesting monastery complex, and this one was free to enter so it was OK. The monastery itself was nothing special, but at the top of the hill it had the biggest prayer wheel we’d ever seen, probably the biggest in the world. Getting it spinning took quite a lot of force, best done with two or more people.
The huge prayer wheel at the top of the hill:
Several people working together to spin the wheel:
Tiny three-wheel cars are popular in Shangri-La and other towns in Yunnan.