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Tiger Leaping Gorge

Zhongdian & Deqin – Shangri-La

Two hours by bus north of Lijiang, the Chang Jiang (Yangzi River) cuts between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Mountains to form the 3900m deep Tiger Leaping Gorge. This section of the river is called Jin Sha, Golden Sands, but from here I could put a message in a bottle and throw it into the river for someone in Shanghai on China's east coast.

On the bus I meet Parisienne Nadine and we agree to be lazy tourists and walk only part of the 16 km Gorge. At the gate we negotiate for half price tickets since we're only going halfway. Laughingly, the gateman sells us one ticket and lets us pass. I am awed by the sheer cliffs but better mountains lie ahead.

Zhongdian lies 2 hrs northwest and 3200m above sea level. As if we had crossed a border, the scenery suddenly changes to boulder-strewn hills, like moraine left behind by recently melted glaciers and wide-open grasslands with large hay drying racks. In the hills along the road are trees of white flowers that look like clumps of snow, beautiful against the mountain scrub. "They are perhaps white azalea," says Nadine.

"Oh, it looks like a Hollywood film set," laughs Nadine of the front of the Tibet Hotel, elaborately decorated in Tibetan style: gold with blue, green and pink flowers and geometric patterns. Zhongdian is in north Yunnan but long ago it was part of greater Tibet, in the province of Chamdo. The people here are actually Tibetan and the rugged terrain is more like that of Tibet than of China. Our rooms are drab but the beds are fitted with electric blankets. Even in summer Zhongdian is cold - it remains between 15 - 20o Celsius with constant rain for our two days there.

Monks On the outskirts of Zhongdian is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan, Songzanlin Si, a 300-year-old monastery built by the Fifth Dalai Lama, named after the famous Tibetan king, Songzan, and belonging to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect. As massive and impressive as a smaller Potala, it sits on a bare mountain overlooking Lake Lamuyongcuo which has been dry for years. Dozens of craftsmen are working cutting and decorating thick wooden beams and pillars to restore the monastery after the damage done during the Cultural Revolution. The scent of cedar is heavy in the thin air. The red-robed monks find my digital camera a novelty and happily pose for photographs. I find them refreshingly natural and alive and ask if I may spend 2 weeks in the monastery. They suggest that I stay in a guesthouse in the town and visit the monastery. It's not exactly the same as what I wanted.

One monk has just returned from India via Lhasa and is on his way to his nearby home village. He had left China 40 years ago (at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution) and had sought refuge in the Tibetan settlements in northern India. He speaks Hindi, Tibetan, English and his Yunnan village dialect. He speaks no Chinese.

 Deqin is to the very north of Yunnan on the borders of Tibet to the west, Sichuan to the east and Myanmar to the southwest. At an altitude of 3550m, Deqin sits among the clouds.

In 1997, China Daily reported that based upon the many geographic similarities between James Hilton's city of Shangri-La (featured in his book "Lost Horizon") and the town of Deqin, they concluded that they were one and the same. To date, no one, including the Hilton estate, has refuted this claim.

Mountains The mountain pass into Deqin valley lies at the snowline and the surrounding snowcapped mountaintops are blinding in the sunlight. The lower mountainsides are brown bare rock, too poor to host anything more than occasional scrub except for the few squares of cultivated fields of rice. Nevertheless, they are majestic and indescribably beautiful. In these mountains, mundane thoughts fall away and what remains borders on the spiritual. It is perhaps for this reason that the Tibetans build their monasteries in these regions, away from the material trappings of society.

In 1206 Genghis Khan broke through the Great Wall of China and in 1252 Kublai Khan rode into Yunnan. These mountains and the resistance of the fierce minority kingdoms cost him 27 years before subduing Yunnan and bringing it within the proper borders of China.

Deqin lies in a green valley, like an emerald in a strata of rock, but down in the town the three streets were dirty and shabby like a million other streets in a million other towns. For the first time in four weeks I find a hotel with a western type toilet. The squat toilets are touted to be 'character building' but I haven't noticed any new or better traits in the past four weeks except, perhaps, stronger knees. Much later, after two years of using squat toilets, I return to the western type and encounter some difficulty, so there may be some truth in the biological superiority of a squat toilet.

I have beef and noodles in a Hui (Muslim) restaurant and am charged twice the regular price. They tell me that a bus to Meilixue Mt. (the tourist high spot) is 50 yuan, more than my budget allows.

Street Scene
I am told that there are no buses to Fei Lai Temple and that a taxi will cost me 30 yuan. As if on cue, a taxi pulls up but I turn him away - in China, one quickly learns to cultivate a healthy skepticism, especially where money is concerned. It is ironic to me that in this self-promoted Shangri-La, it is the inhabitants who are motivated mostly by profit while the traveller is awed by the spirituality of the mountains, the very opposite of Hilton's Shangri-La in Lost Horizon.

Deqin is a dead end as far as foreigners go. The border with Tibet is closed to foreigners and there is really no other reason for coming to Deqin apart from its Shangri-La mystique. (In the following months, Deqin received a facelift and Zhongdian received an airport which suggested that the border would be opened to foreigners wishing to travel to Lhasa and bringing tourism to Deqin. However, two years later, though there were weekly flights between Lhasa and Zhongdian, I was still not allowed to travel by road from Lhasa to Deqin. The Deqin inhabitants are, unfortunately, still awaiting their road paved with gold).

In the end, I decide to walk to Fei Lai Temple. Along the way several buses and the blue trucks used as public transport pass me. By now I am enamored of the mountains and the clouds floating across the valleys and continue to walk. I had asked many Yunnan people what "Yunnan" meant but no one could answer me. Only the people here could know that "Yunnan" means "The Southern Land of Clouds". The usual translation is taken to be, "South of the Clouds" but here it is obvious to me that this is the land of clouds. The road can be seen for miles winding around the mountains, a brown snake among brown rocks.

Windows Built like fortresses, (which indeed they might have been at one time), Tibetan farmhouses are massive, squat, 3 storied things with earthen roofs and beautifully decorated brightly painted windows. Most have an inner courtyard on the third floor with perhaps an open granary on the fourth. Yaks, goats and sheep stroll everywhere, their bells clanging, ringing and echoing down the valleys.

The Tibetan Fei Lai Temple is small with prayer cylinders inside and out. These cylinders contain sacred scripts whose vibrations go out into the universe when the cylinders are turned. I pay 2 yuan for a yak butter candle which I light at the altar. Not realising that I am still inside, two elderly monks close the door and perform the service, beating a drum, ringing bells and chanting from a loose leafed Tibetan script on a rack. When eventually they notice me in a corner they chuckle and continue.

It is extraordinarily peaceful and, there on the road back to Deqin, I feel an enormous contentment. And for me, this is the intangible goldmine, the real Shangri-La, not just somewhere out there in the valley but inside too, vibrating in harmony. There is an old Hindu fable of a fish that enquired of another fish: "I am looking for water. Where can I find it?" And I, who began life in El Dorado, the City of Gold, Trinidad, have come halfway around the world to find it here among a people lost in the city of Shangri-La, looking for water.

Prayer Cylinders Two monks praying in temple

On the roadside I notice some green stones among the grass. There are three triangular shaped ones in a row that immediately remind me of Trinidad's Trinity Hills. I pick one up and turn it over. Fragments of gold embedded in the stone glint in the sunlight.


Back to a Trini View of China


North-west China: The road to Tibet - Lugu Lake | The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Southern Route

The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Northern Route | North-west China : The Silk Road | China : The Centre of the World

Journey to Shangri La: Yunnan | Journey to Shangri La: Dali | Journey to Shangri La: Lijiang

Journey to Shangri La: Zhongdian & Deqin | The Year of the Dragon

All credits to Jiang He Feng - Education 2001