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Beautiful sun over the mountain on road trip to Shangri-la

A Roadtrip to Shangri-la – an alternative to Tibete

What a road trip! As if destination: Shangri-La wasn’t enough, our route took us through Tiger Leaping Gorge and through the mountain roads where tour buses don’t venture. The road was narrow and strewn with lumps of rock that had fallen from the sheer cliffs above, with a worrying lack of barrier between car and chasm below. It was also gobsmackingly beautiful – I must have driven Rachel mad, asking to pull over for photo after photo – most of which I discarded sadly afterwards. None did justice to the beauty of the snow capped mountains and canyons in the startling morning sun.

We stopped at Tiger Leaping Gorge, and went to the place where the supposed tiger leapt to the mid-river stone in the torrent, and escaped the hunter. It looks *maybe* feasible – though the idea of trying to hunt something as nimble as a tiger through that territory seems even less likely than the leap. Even with the modern addition of proper steps, it was tricky going. They did have a couple of blokes carrying sedan chairs up and down for £15, but that looked like their version of ‘accessible’ and we both felt embarrassed to try, given there were a few considerably older local tourists springing up the steps. But the 500 steps was slow going on the way back up. Even though it was lower altitude at the bottom of the gorge – just 2000 meters, slightly lower than Lijiang – we were still pretty out of breath all the time, so any added effort was noticeable. Those sedan chair guys must be amazingly fit – lungs and buns of steel.

Next stop on the road was the glorious white water terraces, a surprisingly boring literal translation of its name ‘Baishuitai’ – the only Chinese name-fail to date. It was stunning! A huge expanse of glistening white rounded terraced pools, stacked like cakes, holding the bluest water, with snow capped mountains in the background. Again, it was a rather gruelling 500 steps up, but a beautiful reward. We looked wistfully at the water: it was crying out for us to swim – but, of course, it’s strictly off limits. Even though the place was empty – just a couple of other tourists there at midday – there were guards dotted around. Here, again, the Chinese goverment had embarked on ‘improvement works – below the natural terraces was a set of particularly hideous concrete imitations. I guess that these are intended to look fabulous in a few decades, when the white lime has had time to build up; they’re just intending to accelerate the natural process with a starter. But for now, nasty. But the beauty above more than compensates.

And then on, and on. It was a good 8 hours slow driving – and Rachel was then heading straight back that evening, though at least the much faster main road would be just 3-4h back. She’d pointed out on the way the sudden difference in vegetation as we went over 3000 meters – pine gave way to fir, and all became more sparse. The wildlife wandering the roads changed too, from goats to yak.

And as we approached the final hour, the houses changed to distinctive Tibetan style: huge, standalone two stories high wooden houses, with wooden planks for roof. Downstairs is for the animals, and the people live upstairs. According to Rachel, one of the local rural traditions is for a woman to marry multiple men from the same family – if a family has three boys, for example, they’d all marry the same girl: one would go on long trading voyages; one would spend months in the mountains herding cattle; the third would stay at home and farm – changing roles from time to time, apparently. Given I don’t even fancy one husband, having three seems decidedly excessive. Talk about “love me, love my family”….

Shangri La was probably wonderful. But the altitude was killing us – at 3,500m, we were both slowly shambling around, totally out of energy, and noticeably stupider than normal – both of us were just doing little facepalm errors all the time: forgetting to tie laces, leaving laptop charger behind, forgetting random things. We had a couple of nights there, and just spent the time wandering the old town, stopping for many cups of tea along the way.

For a place that’s pretty damn cold – sub zero at night even at end of March, though beautifully crisp and sunny during the day – the locals really don’t do insulation. The wood planks for tiles looked pretty gappy; doors and windows likewise – and plenty of places use a blanket instead of door. This would be fine if it covered the whole doorway, but instead there’s usually a gap of a metre or so at the bottom – as between our freezing bathroom and slightly warmer bedroom. The bedroom used a small, plug in floor fan heater that got the room to pleasantly warm – after 24 hours. But at least the bedding was solid and heavy, and the electric blanket worked as promised, and the dark wooden bar-restaurant in the main hotel building served hot sweet ginger tea next to its wood burning stove – so all was well.

Another odd side effect of the altitude has been total loss of appetite. We’d noticed it first in Kunming, just 2000 meters up – V had gastro, of course, but I barely ate too. Partly because the local options looked pretty grim, but also, just total lack of hunger. After a few days, we discovered it’s a side effect of altitude we’d never heard of before. So, for the 10 days between Kunming and Shangri-la, zero hunger pangs instead of our normal, regular as clockwork, ‘starving to death’ every few hours.

Shangri La is, sadly, a marketing trick. The government renamed it in early 2000s, and chose this particular town as the ‘most likely’ setting for the fictional  novel. But yes, it works well. Even knowing this, I couldn’t resist the idea of visiting Shangri La – particularly as it’s the closest you can get to Tibet “proper” without a visa. Tibet itself is closed to foreigners in March, so wasn’t an option; Shangri-la is actually in Tibet province, but outside the visa zone – and it definitely feels more like Tibet than China. It seems a lot of English speakers visit for both the same reasons – and even Chinese people come for a ’Tibet-light’ visit, if they can’t go to Lhasa for some reason. So there were more Western travelers than in Lijiang, and more Western food options – which were all we could face when feeling tired and depleted.

The old town is beautiful, but lots of it is reconstructed – there was a dreadful fire just a few years ago which took out many of the old wooden buildings. But the reconstruction looks fairly successful – nothing too glaringly out of place, and no signs remaining of the fire other than some few buildings still being finished, with carpenters hard at work on the final varnishing layers on the elaborate carvings: the smell of varnish pervades.

There are huge numbers of security cameras everywhere – whether for prevention of fires or revolutions, was unclear. Rachel had mentioned the Chinese perspective on Tibet: that it was only the wealthy people who surrounded the Dali Lama who rented the Communist takeover, and the poor majority appreciated the new opportunities offered by China; and that China contributed g greatly to the local economy. This was reflected in the statues around – of locals monks welcoming the Chinese soldiers liberating them.

Oddly, lots of the shops and restaurants were closed all the time we were there. Between the closed doors, the silent empty streets with no locals or tourists, and hairy pigs and large dogs roaming everywhere, the place had an unusual, wild West feeling. The “roof of the world”, indeed: it felt like the forgotten attic.