Our first stop after departing Lijiang was Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world. As the legend goes, a tiger once jumped across the river at the narrowest point, hopping across the big boulder in the middle, in order to escape a hunter. Hence, the name.
We climbed down hundreds (thousands?) of steps to get close to the torrent of muddy water at the base of the gorge. The mountain views and descent into the deep, narrow canyon combined for some stunning scenery. We were all surprised at the power of the water once we got close enough to appreciate it. When we asked if anyone had successfully rafted through the gorge, we were told that a group of four attempted the run in the 80’s and were never seen again. Then, in the ’90’s, a group of nine adventurers attempted it and eight of the nine died — not surprising to us once we got up close and personal with the river!
Climbing back UP the steps was altogether a different experience from the journey down. With the thin air and warm sun, we all huffed and puffed our way to the top. Thayer and little Caden Sciutto got a lift from some well-placed porters at the bottom of the gorge. Easy livin’!
From the Gorge, we said goodbye to Gloria and her crew, and headed north to the town of Zhongdian, newly re-named “Shangri La” by the Chinese government (purportedly to attract tourists) which means “place of complete bliss and delight and peace.” Along the scenic drive, we stopped to take in some views and had fun with some local Yi minority children.
Shangri La is a Tibetan enclave in Yunnan, and boasts the striking Songzanlin monastery that is apparently reminiscent of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The local villagers here speak Tibetan and much of the culture is Tibetan, including burgundy-robed monks and a lot of options for yak meat and yak cheese dishes. We stayed outside of the main town, up in the hillside near the large monastery, and enjoyed a few days of high altitude exploration – nestled in the mountains at over 10,000 feet, we were instantly out of breath if we tried to move faster than a turtle’s pace!
We spent our first day in Shangri La touring this bedazzling monastery and the nearby ancient Tibetan village. While photos of the glorious Buddha statues within the temple walls were strictly forbidden, we managed to snap some striking shots during our exploration of the huge property.
ZOE: I’ve been to a lot of temples now in Asia, but this one was definitely the biggest and had the most beautiful Buddha statues of them all. Being up on the roof was pretty awesome because I could see all of Shangri-La. Climbing up definitely was tiring because every time we took a step we were panting, but we made it!
SHANGRI-LA OLD TOWN
Like many of the towns in Yunnan (and perhaps in much of China), Shangri-La has a charming, ancient “Old Town” and then a very bustling and industrial newer town. The Old Town traditionally was the main tourist attraction here and had all the charm of ancient China with a palpable Tibetan vibe. Sadly, this past January, much of the Old Town burned to the ground – over 250 ancient buildings demolished by a blaze that ripped through between 1:00am and 6:00am. Due to frozen water pipes, fire trucks had to be called in from Lijiang, at least a four-hour drive south from Shangri-La. By the time they arrived, so much had been lost. We had a Tibetan lunch in what remains of the Old Town and then walked among the rubble, feeling as though we had entered a war zone. The Chinese government, in true form, has already begun reconstruction and the town will likely reappear in no time whatsoever, but the authenticity of the “old town” feel is surely lost forever.
**As a side note, we have noticed that everything seems to be under construction in China. Everywhere you turn there is scaffolding or cranes, or local builders making cement by hand and hammering nails into wooden beams. Roads, bridges, buildings, monuments, high rises and massive housing units are erected lightening fast here, and you can almost feel the pace of modernization and change that has besieged this country. Finding quieter, older or more authentic versions of “China” has been a quest for us and Yunnan provided some opportunity for this type of cultural experience.**
After the gloom and doom of the burned town, our afternoon brightened when we climbed up to see the “largest prayer wheel in the world.” So large is this wheel, it requires about 10 people just to get it moving! We spent quite a while enjoying the challenge of getting the wheel to turn, and recruiting local worshipers to join us.
ZOE: I almost insisted that we should go up to see this giant prayer wheel, and so we did! It was one of the most fun things we did in Shangri-La. I thought it was so cool because it takes more than one person to function the wheel. In fact, it actually takes over 10 people. Sometimes people turning the wheel would complete three laps and then be done, so someone else would have to jump in and help or else the wheel would stop. It was kind of like one big family up there, everyone helping each other. Whenever I would go sit down to rest, the wheel would stop and I’d have to come back out to help people turn it again. It was really nice to see everyone helping each other and having fun, but it was also very sacred so we had to be respectful while participating. Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to sit on that bar and ride around in circles, but I had to be respectful.
On our second sunny day in Shangri-La we didn’t have any plans, so we took a long walk around the (almost dried up) lake near our hotel and around our local village. Fresh air and a stray dog that the girls basically kidnapped for the afternoon (despite the many lectures we given them about the dangers of stray dogs in China) made for a relaxing afternoon in the mountains.
THAYER: Ginger was the best part of our stay here! I miss her sooooo much! I wish I could stay with her instead of leave. She was the best dog ever!
SCHUYLER: I was really excited to take this walk as a family around the wetland. On the way to the boardwalk, I turned around and saw Thayer petting this little dirty dog. I panicked at first because we’ve heard that the stray dogs here aren’t that friendly. This dog was very small and an apricot color and had shaggy long fur, maybe some kind of mix breed. Thayer thought it was so cute! We kept walking and the dog started following us. Thayer was SO happy and she kept calling it to stay with us. The dog ended up staying with us for our entire walk, and we really started to bond with her. She was so friendly and we could pet her, and she loved exploring as we walked (so we had to wait for her a lot). Every time she would leave the track we’d get sad because we thought we’d lost her, but then she’d reappear and we’d shriek with happiness. At the end of our walk she disappeared onto some big farmland and we were sure we’d lost her forever. Mom and Dad told us that we had to leave, but Zoe and I persisted and followed the dog out into the cow-poop fields and kept looking for her. All of a sudden, she appeared again and we were so relieved! She came all the way back to our hotel with us and we fed her in our courtyard, gave her some water, and brought out our hair conditioner and a hotel comb and we gave her a full spa treatment. By the time she was done, she was glowing, and we named her Ginger. We gave her a cushion to sit on and we sat and patted her for a long time. It felt so nice to do some pet community service! Finally, we could help a stray dog. It was a great day! I’m so glad we had that experience – it will be a great story to tell down the road.
BLAIR & JEFF: We, as somewhat travel weary parents, would like to take this moment to formally thank “Ginger” for a providing much-needed distraction from us for our children. For well over an hour, we strolled around a beautiful park with nary a “I’m thirsty,” “Did you bring a snack?” or “Is there a toilet around here that actually as a SEAT on it?” from our kids. We were left alone, completely and peacefully, while the girls somehow enticed a Tibetan-speaking dog to follow them around the lake and convinced her to answer to “Ginger.” The biscuits may have played a role in the dog’s miraculous language skills. Also you should know that Ginger clearly pulled a fast one on the girls with the whole “stray dog” act. We are quite sure that she left her hotel cushion at the end of the day and returned to her warm, toasty Tibetan home in the village and probably ate some nicely grilled yak meat and snuggled in someone’s lap as she drifted off to sleep, dreaming of the three weird looking children who she duped into spa treatments and fresh pork from the hotel kitchen. But the girls were happy, and the parents were even happier. Thank you Ginger!
Our last activity in Shangri-La was a tour of the nearby Nixi village that is known for it’s black pottery. The ceramics are fired in a very specific way here, under huge piles of black coals and dirt, and for a certain amount of time which renders the final product a jet black color. We watched two men making some tea pots and Jeff spent quite a while discussing their techniques and traditions with them. At the end of the visit, we went to their little shop and picked out some small pieces to bring home.
ONWARD… Leaving the peace and tranquility of Shangri-La was bittersweet for us. We won’t have many more truly “rural” experiences along our journey now, and we all find that our time outside the big cities can be preferable to the pace of a big metropolis. But life at high altitude was not without discomfort, from sleepless nights to the need to constantly drink water, and often feeling like you can’t quite get enough air into your lungs! Beijing will offer some familiar comforts, Western food options, and hopefully clean enough air to breathe depending on pollution levels. We are excited to spend more time with our friends Gloria, Tristan, and Caden Sciutto, and to explore Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and of course, the Great Wall. See you there!