As Matt and I bordered the 6.00am flight to Zhongdian, we weren’t entirely convinced of where we were going. Even on the plane listening to the pilots announcement we couldn’t make out where we were going. Feeling a little ill from waking up so early and nervous about where the plane was going to land, we watched as huge mountains penetrated the clouds. The flight attendent handed out herbal tablets, from what the packaging told us to prevent altitude sickness and the packaging advised warm clothing and sunscreen for high altitudes. Unfortunately Matt and I had rationalised our two packs, leaving one in Kumning with all of our warm clothes. When we arrived at the rural airport of Shangri-La we figured we must be near ‘the land of the snow’ or the Tibetian Plateu. Infact the GPS (thanks David) showed us that we were 3283m above sea level and Matt was feeling a little dizzy. We watched as the other passangers (all Chinese) ran for a winter coat stand and bought up big. Matt in his t-shirt and shorts wondered if it may be a wise investment.
We arrived at the Tibetian Cafe at 8.30am, we were asked if we “check-out” the girl looked confused when I said no we “check-in”. We were lucky enough to get a room at 9am and sleep off our fatigue. On investigation we were in Zhongdian the last stop before Tibet. We spent the day walking around the old town (getting sun burnt) and staring at the locals (in their traditional gear) as they stared back at us 🙂 We worked out the bus system and got up to an old Tibetian monastery, that felt a little like the lost city tucked away in the hills. Though those monks have learnt about about capitalism, 30 yuan entry fee (AU$5). It was beautiful! Mainly looking at the huge hills around us. And against all early expectations, I got sunburnt that day.
As we were only able to secure one nights accommodation, we boarded an 8.30am bus to Lijuang (making our way south again). It took 5 hours to make to 160km trip across the mountains. And as always there were a few moments that made our hair stand on end. The trip was one of the most beautiful that I have ever done, through Tibetian rural towns, along the Yanzi river as it decends from the hills and twisting our way through enourmous mountain passes! But we were exhausted when we finally got to our destination, and not for the first time this trip, we did wonder where the hell we were, as our bus pulled in, we heard an announcement for a bus leaving for Lijuang, “isn’t that where we’ve come too?”. We found some other foriegners and confirmed that we were infact in Lijuang. We found a taxi (after passing the touts trying to sell us their services) and he took us around the corner and said he didn’t know where the nominated hotel from the Lonely Planet was. After signing that he could ring the hotel for directions, we went for another 10minute journey (which I think was just a big block) to pull up at another hotel and he told us to wait. We realised that the hotel was in a part of town that was restricted to traffic so the concierge from the hotel met us with a trolley. We were exhausted and thinking this hotel better be okay because we have expended so much effort trying to find it. We treated ourselves to the suite (two TVs), ate quickly and slept fo the next 5 hours.
That evening we went and explored the old town, to find that it must be China’s number one tourist destination (for the Chinese). With flag waving tourist guides everywhere. That evening we went to a moving performance of the Naxi Orchestra, not really our style of music, but so moving knowing the history of this country and the fact that the conductor had spent 21years in jail during the cultural revolution, due to his Western Sympathies (for playing Schubert). 50% of the orchestra was over 80years old, having hid their instruments during the cultural revolution, the other half of the orchestra were our age, it seems that traditional music here has missed an entire generation.
This country is one of contradictions, a communist country that does not allow freedom of religion yet photos of the Dali Lama were everywhere in the Tibetan Monastry we visited, a country that is closed and censors the press yet 80% of the audiance at the orchestras performance were Chinese, coming to see the conductor as they had heard of his story throught magazines and TV (about his time in prison from 28years old to 48years old).
Last night we also saw some Chinese night life, which seems really fun. Groups of people chanting songs at each other across the river and lots of dancing (to new and old music). We hope to get into it a little more tonight as it is apparently the biggest festival in the Lijuang calender.