From Litang we stop advancing west and point south. In a few days we should be enjoying the subtropical climate of Yunnan, but as you may have gathered by now, we are still struggling to find a snowless track, because we dived into Tibet armed only with two bicycles, and flimsy clothing. Around 10 km from town, the road climbs to 4400m through a gorge wide enough for Litang to look like a worn-out Lego. Wind is ambushing our ears with crescendos that suddenly collapse to chasms of silence and massive tectonic scar rises from both sides. I know it’s just a blink in Earth’s history, but to me, this mountain is forever. I fear it, even as I bask in its beauty.
The needle sharp freezing rain is just an hour away. We put on everything that we have, except the extra pair of undies. Our bodies still bear the brunt of the other days and all twenty fingers and toes lose feeling fast. The road to Xiangcheng County and the virgin forests and big gorges on the way to Zhongwenshui seemed promising, but we find ourselves in total nightmare. At Tu Er Shan pass (4696m) the wind is just picking up. The pass, like all across Tibet, is devoid of trees and covered in huge boulders and colourful prayer flags.
To Xiangcheng we make it, by shared mini-van, crammed on top of two Belgian travellers who are backpacking to Thailand. They keep us good company for a night in town, complete with dinner in a weirdly touristy joint and a brief rest in what could well be a bordello. We’ll meet them again on the bus that sloshes to the top of Hai Zi Shan (4998m), and of Kuluke Shan (4708m) after that. There’s even not as much snow as I’d though up here, only some frost, but the dam thing is frictionless on dirt. Pedalling is impossible, and pushing it is even worse. The rear slides back and forth, mud slurry flies and progress is nil, while the antiquated bus manages to lumber on. The driver keeps asking: “Where are you going? Shangri-La? But why not with motorbike?” Damn good question man.
Long story short, by third day we’re crossing int the province of Yunnan – The Land Beneath the Clouds, much sooner than expected. We stop in Zhongdian, one of a handful of places believed to have inspired James Hilton to pen his classic novel “Lost Horizon”. The novel spoke of a mystical Tibetan Buddhist city, of the Himalayan utopia of Shambhala, an earthly paradise, permanently happy and cocooned from the outside world. The Chinese tourism authority wanted to make sure they own this patent. So they swiftly changed the name of an 1,300-year-old Tibetan village (once a stop on the southern Silk Road) from Dukezong to Shangri-La, and bam! a new tourist attraction was born. After vagabonding in wonderful rural China and Tibet Kham for weeks, we are frankly unimpressed. The shop fronts suspiciously lack patina and the souvenirs are a bunch of generic crap. There are no burly Litang swags and no Tibetan faces carved by wind lashes; just minority costumed dancers and cute little salesgirls with the round features of the Han handing idiosyncratic flyers about Tibetan culture. For food, no yak carcasses, but proper restaurant signs advertising for gelato, imported wines and… wait a minute, yak cheese fondue? But we are here and after a few beers with the Belgians I don’t even care about this stuff anymore.
We are bunking in a rustic hostel, where it’s cold and empty (we’ll move tomorrow to a chipper place). So even if it rains all morning, we are quite motivated to move our limbs. Best place to see is the Songzanlin Monastery, also known as “the little Potala Palace” for resembling the iconic lamasery in Lhasa. We approach via a muddy trail that circles the lake, gobsmacked by the image of twin gilded roofs under the bruised sky.
Shangri-La is already at 3000m altitude and the monastery sits another 300m up, at the foot of Foping Mountain. It costs 17 euros to visit, a normal price for China where local tourism is booming, but an impossible cost for any Tibetan (there are no discounted rates for nationals).
The 1679 structure composed of two lamaseries, Zhacang and Jikang, is currently undergoing restoration. I hope that it is being done with humility and respect towards the original.
A glorious sun peeks through. Now we can see the entire place framed by empty horizons. The mountain, so crushing until minutes ago, has become an exclusion zone erected around a human house of gods.
A steep flight of stairs leads to a wide terrace. As we jolt our way there, we are confronted to close-ups of Tibetan architectural vocabulary. Delicate woodwork. Striking colours. Zoomorphic symbols. Both restraint and flamboyance, building up into a concerto.
I look at the black yak fur curtains that quarantine the gut of the lamasery, I stumble on wood stairs that isolate the spaces reserved for monks and the symphony of unknown origin gets louder in my head.
The monastery is not so much an open book, as a place waiting to be inhabited by experience.
The monk, the workers and the visitors could have been photoshopped into the same picture by a joker, as some appear free to run away from “here”, and run they do. The Buddhists are aware that existence is not stuck to the physical. Too bad we aren’t.
Tibetan prayer flags adorn the inside and outside of the building, old and new one left alongside to say that all beings are part of an ongoing cycle and that change is inherent to all life. As Medok, the owner of Potala Inn, said in Litang, “every time the wind blows, the flags send a message for peace and health for all human beings.”
As we climb down through the village on a sinuous sliver of a path, we see huge wooden racks drying the last of the hay and barley.
In his book, James Hilton described the lost paradise as a place where the air has a “deep anaesthetising tranquility”. This could be it.
Ok, a couple more photos of this place and we move on. I promise.
Late in the afternoon we’re back in Shangri-La, reunited with our Belgian pals at the foot of the iconic prayer wheel sitting above the old town. In Buddhist tradition, prayer wheels carry the mantra of Om Mani Padme Hum, and turning the golden cylinder is believed to spread compassion in all directions. It’s strange to think that this is the only bit of Shangri-La that was to survive.
Since we’ve been there, Yunnan’s Shangri-La is no more. I shall regret forever wasting our time there to bicker about architecture this and authenticity that, instead of taking more photos. On the 10th of January 2014 a blaze ripped through the Tibetan Old Town, razing as many as 250 houses within 10 hours and turning many families’ belongings to ashes. All reports point to a tragic accident: the fire prevention system costing more than $1-million had been shut down to prevent pipes from bursting in the below-freezing temperatures and the fire trucks were unable to penetrate the narrow alleys of the old town. As the area has been under pressure by developers for some time, this fire will be a gamechanger in the debate of economical growth versus preservation of tradition. You can see some brutal photos of the aftermath here and here and here.
The first picture of the prayer wheel was taken with the phone. The second was taken by an AP reporter, a few months later.