Shanghai – Shangri-La, Days 8-12

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We took the bus to Shangri-La from Dali, feeling more than a little worse-for-wear after minimal sleep the night before. Darcy was horribly hungover and felt sick. When I woke her in the morning she mumbled “Let’s stay here with our friends.” If we hadn’t already booked our bus tickets I think we would have stayed in Dali for longer, but Shangri-La was our ultimate destination and we wanted to have enough time there.

The bus journey was a rocky one. There were only four seats left on the bus and I claimed the single one near the front as I wanted to sit alone. Darcy and two people we’d met travelling sat in a row at the back. I had less leg room than anyone else on the bus as there were diagonal metal bars directly in front of me. I was able to put my legs through them at an uncomfortable angle, though this was slightly hazardous when the bus door opened.

We made a stop after a couple of hours for lunch and a toilet break. The toilets were unsurprisingly horrendous. We were in rural China at a rest stop where there was nothing but a basic restaurant, an outside toilet and the sound of pigs grunting in a nearby pen. I recalled my visit to the travel clinic in the UK where I got my vaccinations. I couldn’t afford the Japanese Encephalitis one as it was a course of three at £80 per injection. It wasn’t really necessary for Shanghai anyway, but I remember them saying it was important if you were going to rural areas, especially near pig farms. Oops. Oh well, I seem to be okay…

We made no more stops after that so it was onwards over rocky mountain passes with beautiful, bleak and rainy vistas for another six hours. Once in Shangri-La we checked into a hostel which rather disappointingly had the same Ikea bedding that I have in my room back home in the UK. There was a very good restaurant there serving western and Chinese food and I had pizza for the first time in ages. It was the best pizza I’ve had in China after Da Marco’s in Shanghai (which has rightfully won loads of awards for having the best pizza in town). Everyone else went for a wander around the town but I couldn’t fathom doing anything but sleeping so I went straight to the Ikea bed and was out like a light.

We ended up having breakfast in the hostel restaurant for the next few days, even though we moved out of the hostel after one night due to the presence of too many obnoxious tourists and loud karaoke occurring in the middle of the night. Darcy and I moved to a much quieter hostel up the hill with a more local vibe. It was run by a really lovely couple, a Chinese woman and Korean man who went out of their way to help us and even cooked us breakfast at an obscenely early hour on our last day so we could eat before taking our plane home.

On the first full day in Shangri-La we decided to take it fairly easy as we needed time to acclimatise to the altitude. Unfortunately I got very sunburnt on my back and shoulders so ended up feeling worse… we went to a hot spring and I forgot to take my sun cream with me. It was actually cooler than Shanghai, where I often don’t get burnt even when I forget sun protection, perhaps due to the fact that it’s at sea level (and maybe also due to the protective layer of pollution!) Shangri-La’s altitude meant instant sunburn for a girl with a Celtic complexion, and it turned out to be the worst sunburn I’ve ever had (I’ve only been burnt about five times in my life so I suppose this isn’t too bad). I couldn’t sleep for hours that night, and when I did I had nightmares. It took about a week to heal, and carrying my huge backpack was no fun for the rest of the trip. Still, the hot spring was lovely – pleasantly warm and green with views of the Shangri-La countryside. There was even a natural sauna inside a cave.

That night we went to see the local people dancing in the town square, which happens every evening around teatime. More and more people joined in, and a crowd gathered to watch the scene. Tiny children were repeatedly swept up in their parents’ arms as they tried to pet diseased-looking dogs. We went off to eat momos (Tibetan dumplings) and twice-fried potatoes before turning in.

On the second day we went horse trekking over the mountains and grasslands on Tibetan horses. My horse, Gang Bo, was the best-behaved of the lot. I was able to let go of the reins for long periods of time and just let him do his thing.

We had to trek on foot when the slopes became too steep and tiring for the horses to continue weighed down with the burden of people. At the top of the mountain we came to some lush grasslands where we stopped for lunch and hung out with an old Tibetan farmer in his hut. Our guide, Tim, gave us sandwiches and the old man gave us yak butter tea and yak cheese, which I thought was delicious but Darcy had tried it before and hated it so she politely declined. The old man had a dog tied to a thin tree outside his hut, a demon hound with red eyes which barked and barked and chased us whenever we were near, almost pulling the tree out of the ground. I’m certain he would have mauled us given the chance.

Four old Tibetan ladies appeared at one point to pick mushrooms. We couldn’t communicate but they made a point of comparing their skin colour with mine and laughing a lot at the difference. They were very sweet and friendly and happy to be photographed.

Finally we said goodbye to our new friends and continued on our way back down the mountain. We had to get off the horses again as we neared the steeper slopes. We caught up with Tim a bit later and he pointed out where the horses and their handlers were, at the bottom of the mountain, lying down and having a rest. He said that Gang Bo had been looking for me, confused and missing me. Oh Gang Bo, I wish could have taken you home! If only I didn’t live in a ridiculous metropolis which is no place for a horse.

We caught up with them and rode on to a Tibetan family’s home and said goodbye to the horses. We were given more yak butter tea, much to Darcy’s chagrin, and some snacks which looked like sugar puffs. In the evening we met up with a guide Darcy had made friends with when she had visited Shangri-La the year before. We went to a bar with him and watched some bar staff in local costume singing karaoke ballads.

The next day we said goodbye to our travel buddies who were leaving and decided to have a relaxing day as we were still suffering from altitude sickness. In the evening I felt pretty ill but agreed to go for a drink with Darcy and some of the guides, plus loads of their drunken friends, in the new town. It was the Dalai Lama’s birthday and these Tibetan people were all in high spirits and drinking copious amounts of beer. I didn’t feel like drinking and they gave up after lightly ribbing me a couple of times and started feeding me hot water and advising me on how to feel better. They gave me a Tibetan name, Lamu (goddess). A couple had just bought a baby guinea pig which they had with them in the bar.

On our final day in Shangri-La we decided to go to the Gandan Sumtseling Monastery, the most important monastery in southwest China (sometimes referred to as ‘little Potala Palace’). It was very impressive and I imagine it looks insanely beautiful in the winter when the surrounding mountains are covered in snow. Not sure I could handle Shangri-La in the winter though. The houses are not insulated and many do not have hot water.

Most of the Tibetans go home to Lhasa for the winter, as it’s warmer there. This all adds to the strange touristy feeling of Shangri-La’s old town. It’s very pretty but the locals do not live there year-round and there are some of the worst kinds of tourists there. Out of curiosity we looked round an expensive Buddhist painting shop where we could not afford anything and heard an American woman complaining loudly to her husband that no one would tell her the prices of the unlabelled paintings. Rather than asking the price of a particular painting she was interested in, she just bitched loudly in a language the shop assistants and artists could not understand.

On our last night we went to a Nepalese restaurant with high hopes as it had been recommended by the guides and our hostel owners. As it turned out, they completely forgot about us as a large group of American teenagers came in after us, having booked most of the tables in the restaurant. While we waited for our food the men on the table opposite leered at us and unwittingly wafted their cigarette smoke in our direction. People kept leaving the door open which created a draft directly on our table and Darcy became increasingly agitated, getting up to close it every time. I felt it would have been better just to leave it and accept the draft but she couldn’t stand it.

Every person in the tourist group of around 30 got served before us, and our food was cold by the time we received it. The teenager’s guides sang some Tibetan songs for them, before asking them to sing an American song. We were treated to a delightfully off-key version of Take Me Home, Country Roads. To top it all off, the staff then moved most of the tables out of the way to create a dance floor so they could play bad disco music and encourage the group to dance. It suddenly felt like we were in a club late on a Saturday night, not a restaurant at 7pm on a Thursday. As you can see, Darcy was not impressed by the whole situation.

We were thinking of meeting up with our guide friends in the evening but didn’t feel like a late one so in the end we decided to go back to the hostel to read. We saw the dancing in the square one last time and said goodbye to Shangri-La.

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