Shangri-la

Isn’t real.  But I’ve been there.

So after hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, we continued north to a city called Zhongdian in the very northwestern tip of Yunnan.

It’s important to note that, officially, Shangri-la is a fictional place described in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon.  In it, he talks about stumbling onto this secluded and serene valley, a surreal and magical paradise where everything you imagine about Tibetan Buddhism, zen-like euphoria, and mountains and mist come to life.  Dig the wikipedia article for more…

Word spread about this “mythical” place and people started traveling all over Tibet, southern China, and southeast Asia trying to find something close.  Eventually local governments picked up on the fact that tourists, LOADS OF THEM, were all out looking for a “Shangri-la”-like experience.  China was the first to jump on the idea and renamed the Tibetan plateau city of Zhongdian in northern Yunnan “Shangri-la.”  And that’s where I went.

Now, fake name or not, it’s still an amazing place.  It’s located about 3400 meters (over 11,000 feet!) above sea-level in a valley surrounded by mountains.  It’s very very Buddhist and, in fact, holds China’s largest Buddhist monastery… which is where this story begins:

See, we had heard about this monastery.  It’s famous.  It IS the Shangri-la in Shangri-la.  It also costs 80RMB to get there if you’re a foreigner.   If you’re Chinese, no cost.  Now, they don’t check your passports to see if you’re Chinese or not, no, they just look at you.  So what this really turns into is an 80RMB charge for anyone not Asian.  What a load of bull!  We thought so too.

We had also heard that you can try to get around the cost by refusing to get off the bus.  The bus leaves town, heads around a mountain, and into a second valley where the monastery sits, totally isolated from the rest of…well…the world.  Once you leave town, though, the bus stops at a checkpoint where “the foreigners” get off, go into a big building, buy a ticket, come out the other side of the building, and get right back on the same bus for the rest of the trip.  They don’t take your ticket at the monastery and there are questions about who is really seeing the 80RMB.

Rumor had it, though, that when you get to the checkpoint, and the guards order you off the bus, you can fudge things a little and explain “no no, we’re not going to the monastery; we’re headed to the village outside the monastery, the last stop on the bus, not the monastery stop, so we don’t need to buy a ticket.”  We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we decided to try it.

So there we are, myself, two other volunteers, a German, and an Austrian.  The Austrian was this pretty, innocent-looking girl studying at a school outside Beijing – her Chinese was by far the best in the group so we decided to let her do most of the talking.  We get on the bus in town, ride for 20 minutes, and approach the checkpoint.  The bus stops and everyone turns to look at us.

“Xia che.”  Get off the bus.

The Austrian girl pipes up, “we don’t want to, thank you.”

The bus door opens and a guard shoves his head in, “Xia che!”

She held strong:  “No, we’re not getting off.  We don’t want to go to the monastery, we’re going to the village, so we don’t need a ticket.”

The guard climbed aboard.  “Xia che he mai piao!!”  Get off and buy a ticket!!

There was some more back and forth of the same, them demanding that we buy a ticket, and us refusing.  And then the Austrian girl blew our minds.

She cut off the guard – “why would we get off the bus?  I told you already, we’re not going to the monastery, we’re going to the village, the last stop.  Is this the last stop?  Is it?  No.  It’s not.  We’re not buying a ticket, leave us alone.”

It was awesome.

But the bus refused to budge, and the guard didn’t back down.  Maybe the rumors weren’t true, maybe this wasn’t going to work after all.  So we got off the bus.  Humph.

The two girls decided to go ahead and pay the fee, while we guys decided against it.  We were running low on funds.  So we trudged off in the snow on our own, and then we got an idea.  There’s the mountain; on the other side is the monastery.  Could we hike there?  We looked around.  The guards were minding their own business in the little guard hut.  Hmmm.  We began walking.

Now, remember when I said that the town alone was at over 11,000 feet?  Well, add a small mountain to THAT and, phew, you get out of breath REALLY quick.  I almost passed out.  It was wild.  I’d never felt anything like that before…

But man, the hike was gorgeous.  Insanely so.  We trekked over the mountain, through a herd of yaks, found some wild horses, and made it to Songzanlin, the largest Buddhist monastery in China.  Our feet were wet, we were cold, but it was beautiful.

2 responses to “Shangri-la

  1. Oh heck yes. Climbing mountains at high altitudes to avoid paying outrageous fees… only a Peace Corps salary takes you there.

  2. This is a great story, man! I’m going to need more details because this sounds right up my alley. -Charlie

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