Every evening locals gather at the main square in Shangri-La for a daily dose of Tibetan dance. No agenda, no money, no strings attached, just dance.
China is weird. On the surface China looks fairly normal, but after spending some time there you start noticing how weird and absurd it is. Toddlers, for example, have their trousers slitted in the back for easy defecating anytime and anywhere. Deodorant is virtually unknown and attempts to buy one were met with offers of an insect repellent. People in parks walk backwards while clapping their hands, purposedly for health benefits. Another example is traffic. At first sight it looks organised and neat and definitely less chaotic than in an average Asian country, but after a while you realise that under this veil of order and structure there is a total chaos. Traffic lights are just for reference, as well as road directions. There is no concept of yielding to pedestrians. Drivers rather speed up and overtake a pedestrian, only to stop a traffic jam some meters later. All these little absurdities add up, until it becomes too much to bear. After a week in China, I realised that no matter what I do, I will be poorly understood and people will stare at me anyway. Thus madness ensued. I explained strange things to strangers in Finnish, yelled random things in Russian and just acted weirdly all around. My girlfriend, on her part, turned into an angry bitch periodically getting China rages. Dark stuff.
China is difficult. English is generally not understood at all, even on a very basic level. No basic words, no numbers, not even “yes” or “no”. Just nothing. There is almost zero effort among Chinese to understand you either. After a few unsuccessful communication attempts, locals just give up on you. Having a basic command of Chinese is a must for travelling in China. There are so many domestic tourists in China that there is little effort to tailor tourist services to international clientele. At times I felt unwelcome and wondered what I was doing in China in the first place.
Travelling around China poses its own challenges too. Buses and especially trains are crowded and tickets are often sold out. Booking tickets at least several days in advance is usually a good idea. That goes even more true for the festival season, which seems to be on in some form during the entire spring. On top of that China is surprisingly expensive too. We spent more money in China than anywhere else. Flying out of China on a week notice and enjoying excellent food contributed a lot to the expenses, but apart from that everything else seemed to be more expensive than the last time I travelled to China three years ago.
The last time I visited China I mostly liked it. There were some misunderstandings and problems in communication, but no dramatic experiences. This time the China experience was an emotional roller coaster. At times we hated it all and wanted to just get out of the country as soon as possible. But at other times it was not all that bad and made all the hassle almost worth it. This made me think that you do not really experience China, until you begin to hate it. Sharing my experience with other travellers and expats confirmed my theory. On the last day of our stay in China we went to Sichuan opera. It was a fabulous, well-made show with dance, music, comedy and whatsoever, but it made little sense to us. Just like China – well executed, but made no sense to an outsider.
The original plan was to travel to Tibet and then continue to Nepal by land making a stop at the Everest base camp on the way. The plan was shattered to pieces after researching prerequisites needed for a Tibet visit. Namely two different permits you have to apply at least two weeks beforehand, as well as a mandatory packaged tour. The cheapest quote we got was around 1000€ per person for a week long tour, which would involve sitting on a back seat of a jeep most of the time. Uhm, not something I would call a good deal. So the plan was hatched and instead we opted for Shangri La, a dose of Tibet in the northern parts of Yunnan without silly rules and fees. Interestingly enough all this hassle made me sympathetic for the Free Tibet cause. I guess this is not what the Chinese government had in mind by imposing restrictions on Tibet travel.
Despite the cheesy name, Shangri La turned out very enjoyable and blew Dali and Lijiang out of the water. The original name of the city is Zhongdian. In 2001 in order to promote tourism the government decided that it was the location of the fictional Shangri La described in James Hilton’s novel and thus the city was given the new name. In a karmic twist of fate, Shangri La’s old town got burned down in January 2014, which affected domestic tourism in a negative way. Unlike other destinations on Yunnan’s tourist trail, Shangri La has tranquil atmosphere with the burnt old town and few tourists adding a spooky touch. It is beautiful though. Every evening on the main square there is popular public dancing to the neo rave take of traditional Tibetan music. Totally awesome, authentic and surprisingly good music too. Surroundings include one seasonal lake, mountains and all around wonderful landscapes. A good bicycle is the best option to explore the area, but you should give some time for acclimatisation to the high altitude (3200m). Indeed in the beginning any kind of negligable exercise felt like a challenge. Bicycle is also a good way to dodge entrance fees for the lake, as you can ride through the fields avoiding ticket booths on the main road. Further away there is a rather nice gorge (but not a match for Tiger Leaping Gorge) and the spectacular Bai Shui Tai water terrace. All around Shangri La is a nice place I would not mind paying a visit again.
According to a French jazz musician we met in Shangri La, there is a better chance to experience Tibet culture in the remote parts of Yunnan and Sichuan due government’s constant attempts to assimilate the culture in Tibet. Upon researching northern parts of Yunnan seemed to have even more to offer. Further up north there is Deqin, a gateway to a mountain range reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. An overland trip from Shangri La to Chengdu crossed our minds, but in the moment of weakness we had hastily booked a flight out of the country that we had to catch. All this made us almost regret that we had not stayed in China for a longer time. Maybe another trip is in order.
In retrospect the best things in China this time were food, tea and hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Indeed Chinese food is amazing and I am talking about the real Chinese food and not a poor substitute you get in the West. It is beyond me why it is near impossible to get an authentic Chinese food experience outside China. It cannot be because of unique ingredients or complexity of recipes, as most dishes are extremely simple. For example, take cucumber and peanuts. Add soy sauce and a splash of sesame oil and you get an amazing side dish. Simple as that, but I have never seen it served anywhere outside of China. Anyhow, it seems that the Chinese have mastered everything food related, including desserts and bread (something that Asian cuisine often falls short on). My own favourites include deep fried bread and tea eggs, a typical breakfast affair. Normally I am not a big fan of dumplings, unless we are talking about the Chinese kind. I don’t know whether it is the sauce or some other mysterious ingredients, but it is simple, effective and yummy. China felt unbearable at times, but a good meal always lifted the spirits.
China made me realise how poor tea cultures of other countries are (with an exception of Japan). What you normally get in other countries is black tea and no name green tea if you are lucky. In China sky is the limit when it comes to tea. White, green, black, puerh, oolong, lapsang and so on. Each comes in hundreds of varieties and prices fluctuate from dirt cheap to crazily expensive. A new finding was buckwheat tea, a special kind of buckwheat infused in hot water. Tasty and reputed to help to lose weight or at least what they told us in a tea shop. Buying tea proved to be hard though, due to the language barrier and the general ignorance about tea quality. Unless you really know what you are doing, the best way to buy tea is in a supermarket, instead of a specialised tea shop with no prices on display. After an hour of searching, quarrelling and frustration we managed to find a tea shop in Chengdu with an English speaking girl. Another hour was spent tasting teas and getting confused about prices, which fluctuated every time we asked. Haggling was out of question as the girl assured us that teas were high quality and unlike other shops they did not rip tourists off. Finally prices were agreed on and a bunch of teas were we bought. The experience left me with a feeling that we overpaid, but it was compensated by a free puerh tea cake that the clerk put in a shopping bag apparently by accident. Whether it was a honest mistake or intentional, I will never know. No complaints on my part, though.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the best known hiking trails in China. Located between Lijiang and Shangri La, it is a natural stop in Yunnan’s tourist trail. It is amazingly beautiful and can be easily walked in two days (or three if you choose for a longer route). There is no other option than walking, which filters out hordes of Chinese tourists. I had a vision that in five years there would be a cable car going through the entire gorge, but for now it is refreshingly undeveloped. Just natural trails, small mountain villages providing lodging and food, plus occasional shop stands selling refreshments and charging money for taking pictures from “their” viewpoints. Not that many visitors too, a rare treat in China! The undeveloped nature of the gorge did not prevent the government from charging an entrance fee. In fact the fee is even applicable if you ride a car on the public road in the bottom of the gorge. Because China.
A typical tourist attraction in China is an Old Town. A generic tourist ghetto built up with modern-looking “ancient” buildings, restaurants and shop. Lacking in authenticity, old towns compensate with conformity and look brand new, as if they were built or very least renovated in the last five years. Thin on anything original or interesting, they are designed to efficiently extract tourist kuais. The novelty of old towns feels alright for a little, but wears off rather quickly.
The first old town we visited was in Dali. We were unlucky to land there right in the middle of San Yue Jie festival. A hotel clerk assured that it was the best time to visit the town, but I begged to differ. Every corner of the town was crowded with domestic tourists and it felt like a party we were not invited to. Long gone are the days since Dali was known as a hippy backpacker paradise. Nowadays it is a mass tourism powerhouse catered mainly to Chinese tourists. On top of that, the area around the base of the mountains is one huge residential development zone. So it is bound to get even more crowded in the coming years. It was like the horrible vision of what Pai might turn to. I sincerely hope it will never happen. On a more positive side, Dali’s mountains, lake and surrounding small villages were pleasant, but not enough to warrant a separate visit. The fengshui like landscape reminded of was Inle Lake, which it made me realise that Inle was not that touristy after all. All is relative indeed.
Next stop on Yunnan’s tourist trail was Lijiang, another ancient city. Despite the prior prejudice Lijiang turned out a much better than we thought. Unlike the grid like flat Dali, Lijiang is a chaotic maze of cobblestone streets, canals, bridges and hills. The majestic Jade Snow mountains serve as a background. Lijiang has got a character and it almost feels authentic and real, especially in the wee hours of a morning, before the tourist onslaught begins. And even after that it is alright. The city’s surroundings are stunning and can be easily reached by a local bus. The closest village, Shuhe, is a horrendous generic old town and shall not be mentioned again. However, if you venture further north up to the mountains, it will guarantee you an excellent day trip for the cost of a bus ticket. No need to pay entrance fees to walled gardens either. There is enough of free nature to enjoy.