Up before dawn so we can walk to the terraces and get some photos of the sun rising over the water. It was just a pity that today is not the day for it. It is gray and overcast with a slight drizzle. The Frenchman and I still went up the hill though.
Anna was right, it was pointless. The sun came up behind the clouds, and cast a very diffused light over the valley.
Back at where we were staying the car to take us to Shangri La turned up so we loaded our bags onto the roof just as it started to rain properly. Worried about this, the driver had the courtesy to throw a rug over them to block the water if it got too bad. Either that, or the rug just needed a wash.
This days drive was very similar to yesterdays, and again we were going around and over mountains. Steadily climbing. Again it is a beautiful drive. Very nice to see some Tibetan architecture along the way.
Shangri La is about 3200m above sea level and Lijiang is 2400m. It doesn’t seem a huge difference, but the altitude here can cause sickness. We just hope that taking a few days to get here, rather than flying from Beijing will have prepared us.
Driving in, Shangri La seems to be another rather small standard Chinese City. Moderately built up with a couple of main streets with the city being a long stretch of buildings in the center of a wide flat valley. You don’t see much from ground level though. We were dropped at the bus station, basically as we had no idea on where we wanted to go. This was on the outskirts of the old town, which suited us.
Now we just needed to find a place to stay. That turned out to be fairly easy. The first place we looked at was acceptable. For us. The Frenchman split ways here as the hotel wanted to charge him the same amount as us for a room, so he went looking for a dorm (we met up wit him again later, and it seems as if he got the better deal!) Our hotel was empty, and we had a room up on the second floor. There was a nice covered courtyard with a rickety staircase leading up. The room itself was serviceable, but we do wish that a bit more time was spent cleaning. Even if it is just throwing a bucket of bleach over the bathroom.
Then we went off to explore the old town. The old downtown was called Zhongdian, but they renamed it Shangri-La in 2001 to promote tourism. There was a big fire here back in 2014. This destroyed over half of the original downtown area, at the moment it seems as if most of the place has been rebuilt. The main tourist attractions were not destroyed luckily and it was only the tight nit buildings that gave the area its character that suffered.
The main streets are full and open to business, but as soon as you get off them you can find entire areas that have been built and are just waiting for renters to move in. It seems as if some people have bought up big, built and waiting to get renters. The building process is ongoing and it also seems as if buildings are only half finished so the last sections can be tailored to the renter. Will it be a hotel? Give it extra rooms. Will it be storage? Keep it as empty as possible. Offices? Insert cubicals here.
Street after street of big two story buildings made of wood, empty and waiting for you to move in.
Back to the main streets and we found the Tibetan Buddhism Institute. This uninspiring entrance takes you into a shop. It did seem interesting though, and the walls on the way in give a bit of history on Buddhist art. Inside is a very nice workshop and display area. The people here gave us a bit of information on Tanka art. This is a very symbolic with layered meanings. It was fascinating, and we were glad the guys here had time to talk to us. They provided a great background to what we had already been seeing in temples, as well as explaining the Mandala to us as well as the wheel of life (held by the lord of Death). We have seen these images everywhere, and now we had a grounding in what we were looking at. The half and hour or more that we spent with them was worth many hours of us trying to work it out ourselves.
The artworks here were also stunning. Very fine detail and on some pieces, months of painstaking work. They had the appropriate price tags to go with it! Some of the people that work and study here are considered masters of their trade and it showed.
A bit further on is the main square. There are a few options for entertainment here. You can dress up and get your photo taken, ride a Yak, get your picture taken with the local breed of large dogs or just hang out eating Yak Cheese and drinking Yak yoghurt. We stuck with trying the local pancake. Not too bad, but a bit pricey on the main square. I think it cost us 1 AUD! (5 Yuan)
Above us is one of the main temples of Shangri La. So we walked up the steps to check it out.
It has the biggest prayer wheel in the world, and needs at least 6 people to be able to turn it. Many more than 6 were walking around it, as it was full of people. After watching for a while and getting a few photos (hopefully without too many people) we decided to join in and send off a prayer or two for the people we know. Walking down to it, we saw that there are a series of ropes that you can grab and use to pull the prayer wheel. So many people have done this over the years that the stones on the floor have been worn smooth, and makes your footing slightly treacherous. We did our best though, and started our three revolutions. You can really tell the difference when the people that are actually pulling the prayer wheel drop out as it is very hard to pull. Most people just grab the ropes and walk around with the wheel spinning, and do not add much effort to the pulling part. There are at least twenty ropes to pull the thing, and it was full, yet without our efforts it would have slowed down substantially, and on our third loop we were struggling to keep it going. As we stopped and stood to the side recovering, the wheel came to a stop. Most people gave up then, and walked away. Others joined it and the wheel started up again. Somewhat slowly. We can believe that at least 6 people were needed. We were two, and the ropes were full, yet when we stopped the wheel stopped. I just hope that meant good luck for us!
The temple is in the traditional Tibetan style, and the entry again has the four guardian spirits, as well as the wheel of life (which we can now understand!). While we couldn’t take photos inside, I can tell you it is well worth the visit.
From the temple we went back to the main square where we went into a museum that was basically under construction. The first sections lead you through paleolithic and neolithic discoveries in the region (Including the famous Lijiang man, of which we learnt nothing about in Lijiang!) and the archaeological sites in the surrounding area.
How it has been inhabited as long or longer than Australia, and the discoveries made about how people lived over the millennia.
Then there were two fantastic paintings. One depicting the rise of Buddhism in the area, and the formation of the empires, the next about how communism and war engulfed the population.
Unfortunately that was it. We would love to come back and see the finished museum as they have an excellent start to it. (Upstairs is still under construction, and the roof is only half finished. The other side of the ground floor is closed off, and we have no idea on how that is progressing. Try coming here in about 2025)
The walk from here to Chicken temple was long and convoluted. There is a very easy path, but we missed it. (look it up on the map!) We wandered south, and thought we would be able to go up the hill. With China’s incessant building programs this was not possible. Entire streets were being ripped up and re-done. That meant that we wound further and further away from where we wanted to be. Line of site means nothing if the roads are impassable. Here we passed more sections of “old down town ” under construction as well. Apparently after the fire it has grown a bit. This reminds me of a story about Grandma’s ashes. (Think of the ashes as the city) Grandma got cremated (The city burnt down), The family kept grandmas ashes on the mantle piece to remember her life (The start of the rebuilding process to keep what was there).
One weekend there was a party, and on the Monday during the cleanup it was discovered that Grandmas ashes had grown (during the rebuild they got a bit enthusiastic and rebuilt more than was originally there). Turns out that some of the people during the party had mistaken grandma’s urn as an ashtray and added their ashes to it (Developers using the past to dump their crap on the future). Ok so very bad story, but the rebuilding of old town beyond just reminded me of it for some reason.
Back to the Chicken temple. We worked out the right way to get there.
This was through all the build but unoccupied streets mentioned earlier (the new old town that has been built since the fire but was not part of the original old town) then there is a small path between the buildings that takes you past the town. When you pass the town there is a path up the hill that is well worn and covered by lights that are powered with solar panels and small wind turbines. You know when you are on the path when you see all the prayer flags. They cover every conceivable space. About half way up there is a pavilion. Beside the pavilion is a post in the ground that has so many prayer flags that it forms a tent.
The Chicken temple has the name due to the amount of chickens that used to run free around the temple. Back in the day, there used to be hundreds of chickens running around. When we got there we started counting the chickens. In the entire walk around and in the temple we counted 6. Some of these may have been the same chickens. One at least was a rooster. Not what we had been expecting. Especially as the walk had exhausted us. We were not sucking down the oxygen that we saw the Chinese tourists doing (shop were selling oxygen canisters), but we were severely out of breath. Taking our time we explored the temple, as well as the garbage dump next door (where all the offerings and garbage was swept up to and in places burnt). We walked all around the temple, looking at the prayer flags covering every part of the hill side. There were even bamboo poles festooned with flags. As the ropes of flags broke, individual flags got caught around stronger chains, or on trees, or even tufts of grass where they slowly decomposed. Although a nice idea, it is an ecological disaster of epic proportions. If the flags were made of biodegradable materials it wouldn’t be a problem, but these modern flags are made of nylon and don’t reduce that well. It does look as if occasionally there is the odd attempt at a clean up and there are bins of old flags waiting to be burnt, but I don’t see how that is any better.
Walking back down the hill we found a bunker that would be a bomb shelter or military complex. As it is sealed off we have no idea, although we are surprised that it hasn’t been turned into a shopping complex. Further down there are old mud walls. This is the traditional way of making big walls and buildings for the region.
It is the same as the rest of the world, and these walls are no longer important, so weathering down to nonexistence. Below that is a pagoda that is probably very old, and completely neglected. We walked around it and couldn’t get inside. Peeking in through the doors we could see that at some stage there had been the idea of renovating it, but that has been abandoned. On the outside is a growing amount of graffiti. Mostly in Chinese but in sections were “Jesus Lives” and other christian sentiments. A bit disappointing but the pagoda itself was an old highlight to a new area surrounding it.