Saturday, March 9, 2013

Winter Goodbyes and Prayer Flags in Shangri-la

*To a recently passed aunt whose laughter was as loud and vivacious as the colors of the Tibetan prayer flags

It was rather odd, I thought. What is that white dust which floats so slowly and gracefully in the air, collide into the bus's windshield, and disappear without a trace? I have never seen anything like it. Then again, I have never really traveled to a place which has bitter cold winter in the middle of bitter cold winter.

It would take two more days for me to connect the (white) dots and figure out that what I saw from the bus as I headed up here in Zhongdian, or Shangri-la as the tourist brochures would have you believe, was actually snow falling. There was not much, but enough to make the cold air feel like that frosty smoke you see above the surface of ice cubes which come straight from the freezer. As soon as I stepped out of the bus, the icy air seeped into my nose and into my lungs. I felt it coursing through my chest so intensely, so harshly.

Zhongdian Old Town, Yunnan, China
Gloomy yet oddly beautiful snowfall in Zhongdian Old Town

By the time snow fell once more two days later, I found myself alone in my six-bed dorm room in a hostel located in Zhongdian Old Town, missing whatever warmth that a room full of people normally had. I was one of the few who thought spending another night in this desolate corner of Northwest Yunnan was a good idea. That morning as I was going through the immensely difficult task of washing my face with hot water which turned ice cold in seconds, I looked up at the floor to ceiling glass windows of my hostel's hallway and saw a proper snowfall. It was beautiful, and it reminded of Christmas movies I saw as a kid, yet the sight was still strange for someone like me who grew up in the tropics. I quickly got out of the hostel and saw fellow foreigners, Aussies who grew up in subtropical climes, dancing and jumping under falling snow. We were excited.

Excited for Snowfall in Zhongdian, Yunnan, China
Someone's excited to see snowfall for the first time ever

Zhongdian would be the farthest in Yunnan province I would travel to, the last town in the Tibet-Yunnan Highway I would see. There is one more town between here and Tibet proper—Deqin, but it was too far, the trip a little too costly, and frankly, the altitude too damn high for what I could handle in this trip. As it is, I was having difficulty breathing in Zhongdian's elevation of 3,300 meters above sea level.

Though it was still a few clicks away from the Tibetan border, Zhongdian is culturally, ethnically, not to mention geographically Tibet. Tibet in all but name, Lonely Planet declares. Here, the one, two-storey houses of the Bai and the Naxi have been replaced with the towering five, six-storey buildings of the Tibetans, who have traditionally called this place Gyalthang. The crumpled landscape of Dali and Lijiang and the dizzying verticality of Tiger Leaping Gorge are gone. Instead, the land here features wide yak-grazing fields and vast, flat pastures. The features of the Tibetan plateau reach this far southeast.

That Zhongdian was the Shangri-la depicted in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon is debatable, as Hilton has never really traveled to any part of the Himalayas himself. However, Zhongdian's large Buddhist monastery, Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, could very well be the mythical utopian lamasery described in the novel. It is the most important Tibetan Buddhist lamasery in Yunnan province and certainly one of the reasons local authorities officially renamed their town from Zhongdian to Shangri-la, aiming to get a slice of the large Yunnan tourism pie.

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-la (Zhongdian), Yunnan, China
Breathtaking views approaching Ganden Sumtseling Monastery in Zhongdian

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China
Towering Tibetan building
in the monastery complex
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China
Stone staircases leading towards the top
of the monastery complex

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, ChinaThe landscape and the structures here seem barren and desolate, but oddly enough not at all lifeless.

Clutching a string of Tibetan prayer flags in my hand, I approached Ganden Sumtseling Monastery from inside an empty bus. The lamasery hid behind a hill and when the bus turned a corner and the monastery emerged from behind, the sight of this large and sprawling Tibetan structure, this little Potala Palace, situated above a small lake which dries up in winter, was nothing short of breathtaking. I came here for one reason and that is to leave a string of Tibetan prayer flags I bought in Nepal and, as the Tibetans believe, have the wind take the prayers inscribed in the flags into the heavens. In my own small way, I wanted to give thanks to the innumerable warm Tibetan smiles I have received in my travels, those in India, those in Nepal, and now here in Yunnan. In spite of the lousy hand history has dealt their people, the kindness Tibetans display to strangers is beyond compare.

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China
My colorful Tibetan prayer flags from Nepal strung on trees fronting Ganden Sumtseling Monastery

After an hour or so taking in the sights, I left Ganden Sumtseling Monastery on foot. I looked back and saw my prayer flags strung around tree branches, still vividly colorful in comparison with the thousand windswept others. I walked back to Zhongdian Old Town just in time for the nightly community dancing in the main square. Every six in the evening, speakers surrounding the square would start blaring traditional music and everyone, locals, shop owners, hotel staff, and naturally tourists would form a circle, skip, twist, and sashay around the square. Sure, it is a very touristy activity, but it sure is fun if you are game for it, and the locals would be very glad to take you through the seemingly simple multi-step dance.

Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China
Regular evening dances in the main square of Zhongdian Old Town

Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China
Tibetan Buddhist chorten (stupa)
in Zhongdian Old Town
Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China
Dusk falls and the blue hour passes
in this corner of Yunnan province.

Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, ChinaZhongdian Old Town lights up in the evening as the dancing goes on.

The sky grew bluer and darker in Zhongdian Old Town as the dancing went on through the evening. It was my final night in Shangri-la. I would turn back the Tibet-Yunnan Highway the next day to spend a few more days winding down in Dali, then onwards to Chengdu to conclude a month-long trip to China. Yunnan was one of the most amazing places I have traveled to and Zhongdian easily one of the most exotic places I have been in. Here, the barren, dried-up landscape, turning snowy as I left, was very foreign to someone like me. More importantly, Tibet, Tibetans, and Tibetan culture hold a special place in my traveler heart. Saying goodbye is never easy, but I think I was ready. I had to be, as any traveler would. As the bus rolled out of town and onto the highway which snakes through vast snowy fields, I said one last thuk je che and shug dan ja (thank you and goodbye), and hoped that my prayer flags continue to flutter in the wind until after I leave.

Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, ChinaZhongdian's landscape turned snowy as I left.

*More photos in my Flickr set China: Zhongdian (Shangri-la), Yunnan

Which of the destinations you traveled to holds special place in your traveler heart?

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