Monday, April 29, 2013

香格里拉 // Shangri-La ~ Yunnan Days 4-6

From Tiger Leaping Gorge, we took a 4-5 hour bus ride and landed in the mystical region of Shangri-La (香格里拉).  At 3,000 meters above sea level, it is surrounded by snowy mountains on a plateau in northern Yunnan. It is in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous region, which made for an fascinating experience with our Tibetan homestays in a Napa village. The city of Shangri-La was actually called Zhongdian, but long after James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon was written, the Chinese government officially changed the city name in 2002.  Now that is some serious marketing.
Being that we spent 2 1/2 days at the gracious generosity of these host families -- 3 homes in all, so our group was split with shared rooms -- we didn't visit all of the typical tourist sites in the area.  Despite this, I loved taking a break from the time crunches and road travelling for a bit to just enjoy some Yunnan rural life.  I hate to sound cliche and over dramatic again, but Napa was simply breathtaking.  The gravel roads extend around the entire perimeter of the plateau, while cows, pigs, horses and sheep graze in the prairie until the fall rains turn the area into a lake (I was confused for a bit until I learned that Napa Lake is seasonal).  

The craftsmanship on the Tibetan houses was superb, and so large!
They do the carvings themselves, a local man paints the interior and exterior with bright color and endless symbolism.
This was hanging on the second floor, lots of curing/drying meat.  I think the climate is cold enough that spoiling isn't a concern.  Still trying to figure out if that's fat or an animal's stomach.

The kitchen and living area of sorts were all one giant room.  All the families had these sturdy iron wood stoves and copper pots to cook delicious food (yak meat hot pot, anyone?).  As you can see, there's a Mao Zedong shrine; Communist propaganda was all over the walls, and we noticed on the last day that our family had the official membership plaque on their gateway.  Communism still seems to have a firm hold in the countryside, which we've theorized a lot about; perhaps these people have no reason to not like the cause and Mao's seeming intentions to help them.  

Politics aside, we had a 3 year old host sister that was simply adorable.  I feel bad because I have a hard time remembering names, but whenever we were home we spent time with her.  At her age, she could understand and speak a bit of Mandarin as well as her Tibetan dialect, but I think she was slightly underdeveloped from the lack of intellectual stimulation.  It's hard because she was a keen girl that could catch on to what we showed her-- building houses, spraying us with water, using our cameras (she really loved that), yet her family must be too busy to give her proper attention.  She was so clever that we dubbed her the next Mao and not quite jokingly hope to return in a decade to she what she's like!
Johann with our sister.  He was her favorite!
Even the puddles in the field reflected the amazing sky.
There were many public Buddhist altars like this throughout the county.  Seeing legitimate Tibetan prayer flags was pretty awesome.

As I mentioned, we spent a few days in the company of the Napa community.  There were quite a few houses under construction, which seems to be a multi-relative/friend/neighbor endeavor, and they are able to finish in under 4 months!  

This is from the secon story of our tour guide's home.  The first level was mainly inhabited by their animals!
This is our tour guide and his mother (perhaps in-law) showing us the traditional method for making yak butter in a churn.  For breakfast, we drank yak milk and yak butter tea.  The milk was pretty sweet and tasty, but the butter tea I couldn't drink as easily because it was so rich!  I understand though, the sustenance function of the yak foods-- when they work outside in the high-altitude climate for many hours, they need the energy.  We also gave them a hand at one of the house-building sites, though they were probably just humoring our eager, comparably weak selves.  I admired the women working just as diligently outside with the men, wearing these fantastic, bright pink headbands.

The view from the second story of my home stay.
Our tour guide lead a not-so-casual trek up a mountain right behind their homes.  
It was worth the view-- it is always worth the view.
As well as visiting the well-worn Buddhist altars.  I learned about the color symbolism of the Tibetan prayer flags.  They are hung in a downward slant, beginning with blue because this represents the sky; then white for the clouds, green for the sea, yellow for the earth and red for the core (I believe that's the correct order).
Just channeling the yaks and mountain goats.
After reaching the peak, the trail evened out to what was actually once part of the Tea and Horse Trading Route!  What's even more cool is that it reminded me of hiking in the Adirondacks.  We didn't go very far but I really enjoyed the walk.

When we had to leave, it was bittersweet.  These families host students that come to Napa to learn about Tibetan culture because there aren't any close hotels that would cater to tourists.  I'd like to think that we made a strong, positive impression as guests, especially for our affections for the little girl.  On our last night we had a birthday party for one of the CIEE guys, so all the groups did performances and danced and ate a fantastic pear cake.  When we returned to our own home, our host family turned on their awesomely excessive sound system and we danced to Tibetan techno music and did karoke!!  It was outrageous, and obviously unforgettable.  I deeply appreciated the opportunity to peer into their lives and I can only hope to come back one day.  We were given the address of our home stay, so my classmates and I plan on sending a letter and toys for our sister.

After leaving Napa, we spent a night in the city of Shangri-La.

This Buddhist monastery had prayer flags everywhere and quite possibly one of, if not the, biggest prayer wheels in the world!  It was hilarious working with my friends and other visitors to turn the wheel, though the I love the idea that we sent some spiritual goodness into the world.
It's a lot more difficult than it looks.

And of course, shopping.  Yunnan has some colorful clothing, jewelry, decorations and souvenirs, and these vendors were fun to haggle with.  Us ladies found a small bar/club that night called Namaste, which was teeming with drunken Tibetan locals at 9:30!!  It was awesome because a locals passed us beer and enthusiastically welcomed us to Shangri-La, giving us a cheers.  Of course we had the attraction of being foreigners, but the stares were curious, not hostile, and it was really cool to feel welcome.  The scene was entirely different than Shanghai-- the style much more casual, the decor offbeat and not as slick-- but we had loads of fun on the dance floor.  Some of the girls also did kareoke, and we stayed until 11:30ish.  Interestingly, there is a law that after 10:30 the clubs must play Tibetan music.  So at that point, people were still on the dance floor, but circling up and doing their traditional dances, which we joined!  But shortly after the place cleared out, as did we.

In short, although Shangri-La isn't exactly Tibet, it was an experience in Tibetan culture that will always make me smile. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

虎跳峡 // Yunnan Day 3

Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡  is surrounded by Yunnan's mountains and the rushing Jinsha River. Trekking through one of the world's deepest gorges was one of the most exciting days of the trip for me.  Granted, we only scheduled time to explore the latter third, lower trail of the 9 mile stretch, but I was thrilled.  Unlike other Chinese national parks and scenery, these trials were still raw, the tourists were few, and the area isn't completely commoditized yet.  There were even a few places were a careless step could be dangerous -- cool!  
Driving through Yunnan.

Okay, so it's not like we were completely roughing it.  The guest houses that mark stages of the trail are rustic luxury.  The guest staff was so generous to be cooking at 10 PM when our bus finally rolled in with 25 ravenous students.  We were also driving through pitch black (except for the glorious starry sky I have missed so much) along the sheer edges of the gorge, so what a freakin' relief it was to sit back in a wooden cabin.  I felt like we were in the Adirondacks, except with less pine trees, more epic, cragged mountain faces, and amazing Yunnan home-cooked food.  This cuisine is much more vegetable-based, less oil and sweetness, and even a bit spicy.
After settling into my room, I went back inside the dining room of the guest house and looked at them asking, "What is this, a gentlemen's club?" We moved outside together in the outdoor patio, drinking beer, play games and laughing loudly until after midnight.

This greeted me from the window first thing in the morning.  Not bad, right?  It was definitely worth arriving at night for the shock value at 7 am!  I awoke earlier than everyone else to catch the end of the sunrise and changing colors in the sky.  Then I sat in that carved trunk chair and wrote in my journal until my classmates joined for breakfast on the patio -- which was banana crepes(!), fresh bread, and rice porridge.

 The marvelous Yunnan group as we started our trek into the gorge.
 A man was hauling his mules up the trail!  That was awesome and unexpected.

 I romanticize mountain side farms with terraced farms.  Not exactly sure why, but I love it. 
 Mountain goats!

 Mary and I.

 Some of the trail was actually pretty steep, with loose rocks and dirt.
 A local woman hustled ("Chinese'd") us into paying 10 RMB to cross this bridge to Tiger Leaping Rock.  It's actually a lot sturdier than it looks, but I scooted across before too many people were on.

 Tiger Leaping Rock jutting onto the powerful Jinsha River.


 And then I decided it would be a fun idea to shimmy across a sheer rock to reach the Tiger Leaping Rock flag..
  At this point, it was a drop on both sides and I felt more or less stuck.  I sat there and burst out laughing at my compulsive foolishness.
 Nevertheless, SUCCESS.

 The Sky Ladder that connects the upper and lower gorge.  I hiked up to that point, then watched the boys ascend, but ladders (particularly rusty metal ones clinging to mountain faces going several hundred feet upwards) aren't quite for me.  I waited at the rest stop and chatted with the lovely local woman who was selling water and snacks.
 The hike back was actually pretty strenuous with the sun beating down and little water, but always so gratifying at the end!
 The Captain Morgan Pose.

  One more delicious lunch, lingered with the dynamic scenery a bit more, then we were in the bus again and off to Shangri-La.
Even images like this can't justify.  I adore Yunnan. 

Like everything in China, the gorge and surrounding region are in the midst of development.  I'm glad we went now, because I'm scared to see what it will look like in five, ten years from now.   Nonetheless, I implore that you take at least a full day to visit and hike if you are in Southern China.  I would rather be towered by mountains that metal any day.

Listening: "The Start of Something" by Voxtrot