Transitioning toward Tibet
After completing the two-day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, I was looking forward to a few hours of travel under someone’s steam other than my own two legs. We said goodbye to our new friends Gerard and Kiki and boarded a tourist-filled van which ended up being perfect for sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the scenery rolling along outside the window.
Farmlands, woodlands punctuated by the occasional burst of yellow and orange hued trees elegantly displaying their autumnal finery, and rushing, jade-colored rivers, all under the cover of a sky heavy with clouds, filled my gaze.
The road made a slow but definitive ascent and without noticing exactly how, I suddenly realized we were in mountain country. The architecture began to change as we got closer to our destination.
Chinese-style farm houses were replaced by buildings much larger, more solid, more whimsical. Massive beams of wood framed walls of solid, white-painted rock that were wider at the base than the roof, giving these Tibetan homes the look of something plopped down on the Earth from above by something or someone inhabiting the sky with a poor sense of the size of humans. Small windows peered out from these thick walls; Buddhist motives were painted along wall edges and onto doors in cheerful primary colors; the wooden tiles of the roofs were held down by sticks and rocks. The effect was of something both roughly hewn and yet entirely solid and comforting, something fanciful and wonderful and yet perfectly, practically mundane. They were the sort of homes that made me wonder about the feel, the smell, the arrangements inside; the sort of homes I would be intrigued and delighted to try living in for a while.
The van pulled into Zhongdian just as dusk was arriving. The approaching night was already adding a chill to the air, and Roman and I walked briskly through the darkening streets to find a place to stay. We were lucky to get the last room available at N’s Kitchen after only a short search. The room felt like the inside of a fridge but the bed was set up with electric blankets – a welcome sight. We got ourselves settled in and headed out into the night to find food and get a first glimpse of this city that would be the closest we would physically and culturally get to Tibet during our big trip.
The touch of tourism in China
I don’t have the in depth knowledge or authority to write about China’s relationship with Tibet/Tibetans. I presume with my head that it is probably more complicated than I know and can comprehend without a whole lot of research. I know with my heart that there is a lot of tragedy and needless loss and that, like with the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the assumption of land and resources and degradation of culture and history are appalling. I wonder very much what it’s like in Tibet and I hope to see for myself some day.
In Zhongdian, the atmosphere was totally fine and relaxed to my perception; but while Tibetan culture and arts were on proud (and totally purchasable) display for all the tourists to see, there was not a single image or mention of the Dalai Lama ANYWHERE to be seen, unlike in Mcleod Ganj, the home of the Tibetan government in exile in India, which after having spent a couple of weeks there earlier in our trip, was a striking absence to my eyes.
Zhongdian’s old town definitely caters to tourists. From Lonely Planet:
A mere decade ago, Zhongdian was just a one-yak town. Pigs nibbled on garbage-strewn street corners; there was but one place to stay and pretty much nowhere to eat. Then, watching Lijiang and Dali zoom into the tourism stratosphere, local and provincial officials declared the town/county the location of British writer James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-la, described in his novel The Lost Horizon. The result was a big jump in visitors, and the numbers are increasing all the time, as well as a building boom that continues to this day.
During our months in China, we did notice that the Chinese do have a knack for taking anything remotely cultural, interesting, historic or beautiful and turning it into a pre-packaged and terribly efficient tourist “experience” ready made for flag following, photo snapping, souvenir purchasing tour groups who want to pack in as many prescribed sights into their (presumably) short holidays as possible. After Lonely Planet’s description, we were wondering if we were heading to another Lijiang, but we ended up enjoying Zhongdian a great deal more.
We visited in October, just before the big cold settles in for the winter and snow storms begin to disrupt transportation in the area. Perhaps this was a factor but we found the town refreshingly less crowded than Lijiang. The tourist center of the old town had plenty of sibling shops, selling many of the same useless trinkets as in Lijiang, but the profusion was less pervasive and less cloying. A few twists and turns away from the tourist center, and the Disney-land atmosphere already began to fade, giving way to the provincial beauty and flavor of the place.
Not quite 48 hours in Zhongdian
Given that we had such a limited visit to the place, I’m so pleased that in my memory, our couple of days there stand out as a significant experience, feeling emotionally much more like a week’s worth of time.
A good portion of our hours there went to aimless pursuits such as warming up and relaxing in cozy restaurants, cafes and bars with delightfully good food, coffee and beer or wandering around the atmospheric alleyways. But we also made it to Ganden Sumtseling Gompa and Baiji Si (100 Chickens Temple) – I’ll do a separate post on those two magical places.
Food and drink highlights included indulging in some really good western fare at Compass, actually enjoying yak that had been well-marinated and garnished by a very liberal hand at Arro Khampa, discovering the most delicious, tender momos I’ve ever had at the Rebgong Tibetan Art Studio & Restaurant, and spending one delightfully cozy cold evening in the dimly lit, wonderfully toasty Heat Nest Bar where Roman had beer while I enjoyed hot ginger Coke (this is apparently a Yunnan specialty – they boil Coca Cola with fresh ginger and serve it hot as a tea. Incredibly warming and much tastier than you might imagine!) and we alternately watched some live football (soccer) or the family of super-cute huskies napping contentedly together on a couch in the corner.