Day 38: Shangri-la

Day 38: August 29th

We hadn’t planned on doing much today in Shangri-la. Most of us were feeling better from yesterday’s bout of altitude sickness..except for Pao…so they decided to stay behind for the day.
After an extremely relaxing and yummy breakfast at a cafe called, Somewhere Else we decided to visit the 300 year old monastery in the town.

From wikipedia, ” Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. Hilton describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, and particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia — a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. In the novel Lost Horizon, the people who live at Shangri-La are almost immortal, living years beyond the normal lifespan and only very slowly aging in appearance. The word also evokes the imagery of exoticism of the Orient.”

In modern China, a place called Zhongdien in Yunnan province was renamed to Shangri-la in 2001 to attract tourists… and it sure has worked. The old town has a charming feel (much smaller than Lijiang which was overrun with tourists in comparison) with a number of lovely cafes completely catered to the Western tourist….Western food, english menus, amazing playlist of music! We were all feeling very relaxed and happy to be spending 3 days here. Apparently ten years ago, the town didn’t even have very many cars, let alone hotels and hostels.

This morning, when we finally got moving around 11am, we made our way to the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. It was built in the 1600’s and is still an active monastery today. I had read on the Lonely Planet that they were modernizing some of the structures so some tourists might be a tad underwhelmed. When we first got there, what we didn’t realise was that we had to take a 5 minute bus ride to the monastery itself. Instead, we stood at the entrance of a really modern looking building(actually the ticket office) thinking.. damn! This Lonely Planet was right about the building looking modern. 🙂 Much to our relief, we finally figured it out and took the bus to the main monastery itself.

The Monastery built in the 17th century as the largest Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province, after a revelation by the Fifth Dalai Lama is in accordance with Tibetan traditional architectural style. It has six main structures including eight colleges. The entrance gate is at the foot of the hill and provides access to the main hall of the monastery through 146 steps…which were pretty hard to climb given the high altitude!!:)

We spent around 2 hours there and made our way back to the old city for some lunch. I still hadn’t gotten my fill of Western food.. so pasta it was for me! Who knows when we’ll get good Western food again. 🙂

The rest of the afternoon was spent reading at what was now becoming our favorite place to hang out…where else… but Somewhere Else cafe!:) We knew that there was Tibetan dancing in every major square in the old city at 7:30pm.. so we had the entire afternoon to just relax till then.
At 7:30, a group of 9 of us (Oli left us that afternoon and was on his way back to Kunming) made our way to the main square to watch the dancing. After about 20 minutes of just watching, we decided to join in. Bill first joined in, followed by Mitae, Emily and me! Soon enough, Alex and Asaf joined in too. We had no idea what we were doing but it was so much fun!:) Bill is sure we are going to end up on some tourist brochure as there were so many people who started taking pictures of us. We really got the party started.. there were only around 30 people dancing when we started and that number must have become at least close to 100 by the time we were done around 30 mins later. What fun!

The main square was at the base of another monastery which we decided to check out. The main complex was closed as it was past 8pm but there was a huge prayer wheel which was really heavy! You needed everyone there to pull on the ropes to get it moving. Sure enough, Bill rallied enough people and after a lot of huffing and puffing, we managed to get the prayer wheel moving. It has to go around three times for it to count!:)

All this worked up our appetite pretty good.. Bill spotted Mei Xiang Cheese and immediately recognized the brand. One of his closest friends, Fiona Foxon helped get this small local venture off the ground. They specialize in local wines and cheese and butter made from Yak milk. We all had dinner there. While the food was really really yummy, the yak butter and milk sat really heavy.
Suddenly, we were all feeling pretty tired from the evening’s activities.

I can’t remember a more fun day.. especially because it was so unexpected. The dancing, the prayer wheel, dinner all with the most fun crowd. So glad we all bumped into each other.
We were both feeling especially happy and grateful today… Not everyone has the ability to create the same opportunities to travel as we have. To quote a note Bill sent to his old boss, “We’re chilling with our crew of fellow travelers in a great backpacker cafe on a rainy day deep in the wilds of Yunnan Province. 30 miles west is Myanmar, another 40 or 50 beyond that is India. To the north sits Tibet. Somewhere long, long back down the windy road out of the mountains is the job I left behind two months ago 🙂
This place is called “Shangri-la” for a reason.”

The Monastery



View from the monastery

Mei Xiang Yak Cheese

Bill getting into the dancing

The gang

Monastery lit up at night

Bill rallying the troops around the prayer wheel

Prayer Wheel


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