Thursday, August 18, 2005


Greetings from Shangri-La. At least that's how the town of Zhongdian (marked Xianggelila on the map) in northwestern Yunnan province, nestled in the Tibetan plateau, is marketing itself. But I'm getting ahead of myself, before arriving here there was some hiking to be done in Tiger Leaping Gorge.

In this gorge the Jinsha Jiang narrows from about 100m to less than 10m in places producing some monstrous rapids, and the surrounding mountains are sheer and impressively tall (unfortunately the summits could never be seen as the craggy peaks never let go of their veils of clouds). There are two ways into the gorge: via the road along the base of the gorge, or along the steep footpaths that wind up the mountainsides. It was never really in any doubt. So Cressica and I shouldered our bags and headed off along the paths, trying to stay clear of other pesky tourists and local people offering horseback rides (it wouldn't be a challenge then, would it?). The night was spent in a Naxi-run guesthouse and the next morning we headed down towards the river to get a closer look at the river and the part of the gorge that gave it its name. According to legend a hunter was chasing a tiger, which, to save itself, jumped across the river at a narrow part of the gorge (still over 20m apart), about 60m above the water. The view was definitely worth the descent down to the river (my legs, however, would disagree with the value of the ascent). Then we had to make our way quickly back along the road to catch a bus to Zhongdian for me, and Lijiang for Cressica. I was hoping to catch a lift back, but that option soon proved to be impossible as landslides had blocked the road at many places, meaning we had to scramble over them (sometimes just inches from the edge of a sharp drop), which was actually great fun. Anyway, we finally did get a lift at the last landslide and I managed to catch a bus to Zhongdian.

So that's how I got to Zhongdian. In James Hilton's book Lost Horizon, Shangri-La was an earthly paradise in a secluded Himalayan valley. But you have to be wearing a pair of rose-coloured eyepatches to believe that of this place. I admit the old town has a certain charm, with wooden houses built in traditional Tibetan style (even the new ones) and a large lamasery (the largest outside of the Tibet autonomous region), but they have an uphill struggle against the insipid grimness of the modern, Chinese monstrosity that has sprung up here. Similarly I have been a bit underwhelmed by the Tibetan plateau. I was expecting soaring peaks, vertiginous drops, snowy summits and all that jazz. Instead what you've got are verdant, rolling hills, albeit at three to four thousand metres. I guess it stems from me selectively ignoring the meaning of the word plateau. Still, I expect things will become a bit more dramatic as I press on. Tomorrow I take a bus to Xiangcheng, some 400km north of here. Under good conditions the journey takes 12 hours. So now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be off to buy some snacks for the trip.

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