We arrived at the mountain town of Zhongdian, also known as Shangrila, to find that it was cold and raining. Government officials declared the town and county Shangrila after britissh writer Jame Hilton’s novel The Lost Horizon to increase tourism. The funny thing is that it has actually worked. We were hoping to find a town that not many people visit, but found everything from Chinese tour buses to backpackers. The old portion of town resembled that of Dali or Lijiang, and the massive influx of government support was evident in the rapid construction of new buildings everywhere. We spent a while walking in the rain to find a cheap enough hostel or guesthouse. Unlike everywhere else in China, the hostels and guesthouses where were not willing to bargain. We walked out of the old town area, away from the inflated prices, and finally found a hotel. At this point it was fairly cold with a temperature which had to be near 5 degrees celcius. Unfortunately, no buildings in the town seemed to use central heating; not even our hotel room!
We awoke the next morning to snow, and we certainly were not prepared for it. Tara wore 3 shirts, a sweater, two pairs of socks, and her rain jacket. Looks like we didn’t miss our winter after all. We went to a cafe for brunch and to wait for better weather. The cafe was not heated, but had a iron stove in the middle. The stove had a circular tube which held cylindrical, pressed chunks of charcoal, each about the size of a mini-soccer ball and with holes throughout to help it burn. Placed on top of the circular tube was a thin, flat stovetop which conducted heat. Unfotunately, the stove did not radiate much heat. Instead, the waitress placed a bucket of hot coals next to our table. The snow eventually turned to rain, but the weather did not warm up by the time we had finished our lunch and hot chocolates. We were forced to see the town despite the rain.
First, we caught the local bus to the Songzanlin Monastery. This massive complex consists of a few large temples, and a ton of houses situated around a hill. The monastery is home to hundreds of tibetan monks; however, on this day most were probably inside their homes trying to stay warm. We did run into a few monks and one was chatting on his new cell phone. These monks must not follow the vow of poverty. Immediately, we noticed Tibetan prayer flags in the distance. Since it was cold and raining, there were not too many tourists which made for some decent photos. We were also allowed to wander in and out of many of the buildings and temples. One room we stubled into was elaborately decorated with brightly coloured pieces of cloth in the shape of a shield. The cloth pieces covered every inch of the walls, and we guessed that the room was used for dining or for tea.
After the monestary, we wandered around the old town, and walked up to a temple placed on top of another hill. This temple was also decorated with prayer flags which circled the entire complex. To the right of the temple was also a massive prayer wheel that actually moved. It was so heavy that it took both of us to turn it!
Cold, wet, and with no end in sight for the rain, we went back to the cafe for more hot chocolate. We walked in and noticed some other travellers playing chess. Tara decided that we should complete a puzzle. By the time we had finished the puzzle, it was dinner time. After overhearing two guys asking about the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, Adam decided to give them some advice. Lonely Planet sometimes states that certain cafes are good for information, but this is rarely the case. Most of the time when we were looking for information in cafes throughout China, we were simply handed photocopies or cards of other overpriced guesthouses in an elaborate chinese network. We ended up talking to the two guys until the cafe’s closing time of 10:30pm. We quickly checked the weather for Shangrila and another Tibetan town further north called Deqin. The forecast predicted rain and snow for at least three more days, and we quickly gave up the dream of Tibetan scenery and fewer tourists. We decided to not wait out the weather and instead head south.
In the morning, we caught the first bus back south to Dali. The woman at the counter said that the ticket was 170 Yuan, which didn’t sound right. After a few questions, she reluctantly told us that the slow bus was 66 Yuan with only a difference in travel time of two hours. She was not happy to sell us the slow bus ticket. After a stop at a makeshift family restaurant for lunch, and an uneventful bus ride totalling eight hours, we were back in Dali city. We decided to keep on moving, and immediately bought a ticket for a night bus to Jinghong.
While waiting for the bus, we noticed a security guard flipping through the television channels. After about 10 minutes of watching TV, suddenly almost all of the channels were news. When we write almost all of the channels, it’s more like 9 out of 10 channels are news, and not multiple news programs. All of the channels display the exact same news program; most likely the government “supervised” news program. The 7 o’clock news in China is incredibly popular. Instantly, a small crowd had gathered to watch the news with the security guard.
We quickly found ourself on another night bus. It was impossible to sleep with rediculously bumpy dirt roads winding around mountains for the first half of the night. Tara was in the middle row and thought she was going to fly out of her “bed.” The bus stopped twice at a rest stop for people to use the washroom. This is probably a good place to write about the reststop “washrooms” in rural China.
Most reststops consist of a very small building or hut made of cinder blocks. The floor is dirt except for where you stand or squat to do your business. Here, there are flat cement or stone blocks which are level with the dirt floor. A foot is placed on either flat spot and in between your legs is a steep, sloping trough also made of cement or tile. The trough slopes down to a collection pit or pool, which may or may not be outside the building. At this particular stop, the rotting pool was inside the building, and it could have been easy and unfortunate to slip and fall in. Sometimes, if you are lucky, the washroom will have these sloping troughs sectioned by waist a high wall for some semi-privacy. Almost none of these style of washrooms have any sort of flowing water to help wash away the filth. Those that do are generally the public restrooms in a city, but even those show no sign of water use. Of course, we do not need to describe the smell or general cleanliness of these nice rest stops. These stops were really the only nasty part of China which we did not expect. Luckily, we only had to use them on long bus trips in the rural parts of China.
After a grand total of 22 hours of bus travel from Zhongdian, we arrived in the southern city of Jinghong. We quickly found a hotel and had lunch at a cafe which actually had good information about the surrounding area. The area is known for the hill tribe minorities and treking through their villages. We planned out a bicycle trip for the following day and decided to take it easy for the rest of the evening. After a quick dinner, we went to bed early.
The next morning, we went back to the same cafe for loaded omlettes stuffed with mushrooms, onions, bacon, and potatoes. After a hearty breakfast, we copied out a map of the area and rented our bicycles. The plan was to bike through some of the closer villages and visit some hot springs on the way back. After leaving the small city, we hit a dirt path and winded through rice fields and palm trees. In less than 24 hours, we had gone from 0 degrees celcius and snow, to 30 degree heat and plenty of sun. The villages this close to the city were quite modern as each hut or house had a satellite dish mounted outside and solar hot water heaters. We decided that the hot springs were not necessary since we were too hot already, and biked back into the city. The hill tribe treking in this area seemed incredibly expensive, and since some of the villages seemed a bit too modern, we decided to save the treking for Laos.
Tomorrow we will head south to a small town called Mengla and spend the night before making the border crossing into Laos.
Overall China has been amazing, but we’re a bit frustrated at the big brother screening of information. Anything containing the word Tibet is blocked on the internet. We don’t even know if the above wikipedia links about Tibet work because we can’t connect to them. The television channels are also heavily sensored, and the only english speaking channel is heavy with propaganda of all sorts. We wanted to leave the comments about that to the end of our China postings for fear of being blocked from our own blog. Other travellers that we have talked to have been blocked for mentioning Tibet. China is a bit surreal in this aspect. This part of the country was fun, but we are anxiously awaiting the slow pace in Laos.