Kunming 昆明市 – Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 迪庆藏族自治州
Dec 2008 – Jan 2009 (1 month)
I know it sounds ironic but my search for Shangri-La literally began in Shangri-La.
Shangri-La (香格里拉), also known as Zhongdian County (中甸) or Diqing （迪庆), is a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the Yunnan province (云南省) of China. In literary terms, Shangri-La is a fictional place made famous by James Hilton’s best selling 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon”. In his novel, it is said to be a utopia – a remote paradise and happy land, isolated from the world. The people living in this utopian village (理想庄园) are almost immortal, living hundreds of years and age very slowly. The village was discovered by the survivors of a plane after it crash-landed in Shangri-La.
Luckily my journey to Shangri-La was not as eventful as the survivors in James Hilton’s story. I landed safely in Diqing airport after stopping over for a night’s rest in Kunming.
During my stopover at Kunming, we visited a teahouse which was manned solely by a bright young girl, perhaps around 9 or 10 years old. Her mother confidently left her in charge of the teahouse. She was enthusiastically sharing her knowledge on the types of tea and talking us into buying. A very eloquent speaker. She even gave us promotional discounts to entice us to buy. Imagine being trained as a salesperson at such a young age, I’m sure she’ll grow up to be an excellent salesperson as well as an enterprising business woman.
The flight from Kunming to Shangri-La takes about an hour. Shangri-La is a high mountainous region hence Diqing airport is one of the highest altitude airports in the world at 3,280m. If you’re worried about altitude sickness and have more time to spare, you can take the route from Kunming (1,892m) – Lijiang (2,400m) – Shangri La (3,280m) so that you gradually acclimatise to the increase in altitude rather than going from 1,800m to 3,200m straight away.
You can also fly to Shangri-La from Chengdu (2 hours). If you plan to travel onwards to Tibet, you can fly from Shangri-La to Lhasa (2 hours). This would be a good way to acclimatise to the high altitude before entering Lhasa (3,656m). However, you would have to obtain a valid visa or travel permit to enter Tibet before you fly. Permits can be applied through a tour agency. It is compulsory for tourists to be guided in Tibet. You are not allowed to travel independently. Check out Himalaya Journey for guided tours and support the Tibetan people. Their tour guides are local Tibetan people rather than Chinese. This blog on Land of Snows by Jamin “Lobsang” Lee is the most informative blog about Tibet.
For the first couple of days and up to a week after I landed in Diqing, our itinerary was slow and easy. To acclimatise, the locals advised us to rest a lot and walk slowly. I have had headaches for the first few days and breathing is a bit more laborious due to the thin air.
Moments etched in my memory…
My time in Shangri-La was mystical and had a lasting impact on me. The place was peaceful and calm, providing healing and deeply spiritual experience for those who visit. I have plenty of time to explore the area at my own pace. There is no rush to get here and there for sightseeing, like most group tours do. I have been on some of those tours and do not enjoy them. The tour buses would drive you from place to place, with itineraries packed back to back. They would drop you off at a location and give only 10 minutes at each “scenic spot” to take some pictures. At the end of your trip, you are left more exhausted than before.
For me, as a traveller, I enjoy taking my time to learn and immerse myself in the local cultures, traditions and try their food. It is about being open, observing and experiencing life from the perspectives of the locals without judgement, rather than looking at things from a superficial perspective, like a tourist. I learnt that the term coined for this type of travel is “slow travel” #slow travel. Apparently it’s an offshoot of the slow food movement. Another story on slow travel next time?
Shangri-La is a place steeped in Tibetan culture. Many of the buildings are Tibetan styled architecture. Unfortunately, in recent years, it has become more commercialised with tourists, hotels and hostels popping up in the area. While this influx of tourism brings economic benefits to the locals, this also means that local cultures would change and evolve as they become somewhat influenced by foreign cultures.
Dukezong old town (独克宗古城) and Tibetan Architecture
Before the huge fire incident in 2014, Dukezong old town was one of the best preserved places of Tibetan architecture and community outside of Tibet. There was a large Tibetan community living here. A huge fire broke out in 2014, apparently because a space heater caught fire in one of the shops, and destroyed a large part of the old town.
After the fires, the Chinese government pledged to rebuild the old town. Many of the residents had to relocate elsewhere as their homes were burnt down. Even after the rebuilding efforts, the old town would never be the same again.
Dukezong old town was one of the rest stops on an ancient tea and horse trade route 茶马古道 between China and Tibet. China would trade their tea for Tibetan horses, which were highly sought after.
“For 130 pounds of brick tea, the Chinese would get a single horse. That was the rate set by the Sichuan Tea and Horse Agency, established in 1074”.National Geographic.com, The Forgotten Road
Dukezong, in Tibetan language, means white stone city. It is also referred to by some as the “moonlight city 月光城”. This came about because the walls of buildings are plastered with a type of white clay found locally. Under the moonlight, these white walls look enchanting. Baidu
I find Tibetan architecture very impressive. The designs are inspired by nature and their buildings are built using locally sourced materials. As you walk along the old town, you can see that some of the paths were kept in their original state – made of cobblestones.
About 20 minutes drive away from Dukezong old town, you will find The Songstam Retreat 松赞香格里拉酒店. It is a hotel built out of stones and designed based on traditional Tibetan architecture but infused with modern comforts, like a bathtub, to provide guests with a comfortable stay. The rooms have a very generous space and a balcony that allows you to enjoy the expansive and amazing views of the surroundings. A great place to relax and do nothing. The owner, Baima 白玛多吉, is Tibetan. He started the hotel in hopes of providing a quiet and safe haven for city folks to take time off their busy lives. It is a place for reflection, self-care and healing. Read about Baima’s story.
Every evening, the local village folks would gather at the open square in Dukezong old town for their daily routine dance. It’s like a celebratory end to a hard day’s work. Passersby are welcome to join them in the dance.
My favourite Tibetan album is Shangri-La 香格里拉, which is sung by a Tibetan singer named Tsering Tan (热西 。 才让旦). Even though I don’t understand the lyrics to his songs, his vocals can bring you to an imaginary place far away and soothe your soul.
Follow him on spotify for the album “The Snow Lotus”.
According to the locals, the younger generations of Tibetans do not have surnames which would link them to their ancestors or a “family tree”. The older generations had surnames but this practice was discontinued. This may be related to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. I hope I am translating this right because it was dictated in mandarin. They say that Tibetans believe everyone can be your parent, uncle, auntie…essentially a family member, hence there is no need to differentiate between families. 人人都是你的父母，这样他们都有的姓。
Tibetan burials are an important part of their culture. Tibetans believe that the greatest gift that one can afford to give is to offer your own body back to nature when you die. There is a very deep and abstract philosophy behind this, which would require further research and study into this subject.
Apparently this concept comes from the Buddhist practise of giving without expecting any returns 布施. Tibetan burials are held depending on the seasons. They have sky, water and earth burials 天葬，水葬，和土葬. So depending on which season the person dies, they would carry out the rituals accordingly. Sky burials are usually carried out in winter and is an act of the highest form of attainment. When a person dies, they would carry the body to the burial site up on the mountain. If you spot a white pagoda up on the mountain, that would be the burial site. Outsiders are not allowed to be present at these burial rituals. I was told that the bodies would be chopped up and mixed with tsampa (like a cereal made of barley or wheat flour). The vultures would then descend and feed on the corpse until there’s nothing left. In other seasons, they would drop the bodies into the river to feed the fishes.
Ge Dong Festival
On Christmas day, 25 Dec, we went to the temple early in the morning to watch an event. Tibetans hold a special event on this day called the Ge Dong festival 格东节盛会, which is like a spirit festival. Tibetans believe that they have to face 42 ‘quiet’ spirits 静神 and 58 fierce spirits 威猛神 when they die. Spirit dancers would wear masks depicting such spirits and carry out a ritualistic spirit dance 跳神舞. They do this in preparation for death. So that when they meet these fierce looking spirits in the other realm, they would not be afraid. This is one of the many ways Tibetans prepare themselves for death – an inevitable part of life, as we will all die one day. A lot of people attended the event, which lasted the whole day. It could well be the entire village attending it.
This dance also signifies the end of autumn after their harvest, and marks the beginning of a long and cold winter period. It’s a bitter reminder that good times are short and do not last. The good times have passed and they would have to be prepared for the cold winters ahead. A philosophy on the impermanence of life.
I’m amazed at how Tibetans do not approach death as a taboo subject. From the sky burials to such spirit dance events. The topic is weaved into their life and normalised. They even prepare themselves for the eventuality. Something we can learn from as we sometimes live our lives as if we still have many years ahead when in fact, death is an uncertain element of life. You never know when you will leave this world and depending on your religious or cultural beliefs, you may go to heaven, hell, be reborn or just cease to exist. Of course, you also cannot live in the other extreme and give away all your things and money, thinking that you may die the next day.
During my stay, I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a local Tibetan wedding of one of the hotel staff. On that day, we walked to their house. There were already lots of people in and around the house. Their main gate was decorated with the red congratulatory note of Shuang Xi 喜喜, literally translated as double joy.
The bride is a very young lady of 17 years old. Winter is supposed to be the peak season for families to get married. With marriage, Tibetan families warmly welcome an extra pair of hands into their family. The new family member would help them relieve their daily labour intensive chores, like cutting firewood, cooking, etc. Chopping firewood is essential for them to stock up enough fuel for fires and survive the cold winters.
When we arrived, people were busy preparing and cooking food. We were served with generous helpings of food and dishes. One of the dishes served is pig’s liver. It is a local delicacy served during special occasions like weddings. The pig’s livers are hung outside to be air dried in the chilly winters. Air drying food is a very common method locals use to preserve food. To serve, they sliced the liver and marinated it with spices. I don’t usually eat innards so I only tried a tiny bite of it. I must say, it is a very tasty dish. Not at all bad.
Inside the bride and groom’s bedroom, they have the dowry stacked up in a pile. The bride’s family is more well-to-do, hence her family were the ones who provided the dowry. There were lots of clothings, warm blankets, and baby items.
Then we heard a commotion and went outside the house. The groom has arrived in a decorated sedan car. The bridesmaids were all lined up in a row preparing to welcome the groom. In Tibetan culture, the men are the ones being welcomed into the ladies’ family rather than the other way like Chinese culture. I’m not sure if this is the case for all families or it could be dependent on the families’ manpower shortage situation. For example, a family may need a man to help with the labour tasks on the farm and so they will welcome a man into the house. Conversely, if a family needs someone to help with the cooking, they will welcome a lady into the house. This is just purely hypothetical and I’m assuming that they carry out tasks based on traditional gender roles.
After the groom and his gang got out of the car, the father of the bride and the father of the groom would meet and start to sing. They sang for every step of the way until they reached the door.
It was interesting watching them conduct their ceremony. We left after a while to take a rest and then returned at about 9pm to watch their wedding dance. The dance would continue throughout the night. It’s something of a question and answer dance. One side consists of the groom’s family and the other side is the bride’s. The groom’s side will dance a question and then the bride’s side will dance an answer. They would dance clockwise around a pillar in a small room. I joined the dance for a bit but could not keep up as the moves were difficult to follow.
My fondest memories of Shangri-La is the moment when me and my mum were patronising a street food stall at the old town after a long walk. It’s a makeshift set up and each stall has their own set of stools and tables for their customers. The hawkers were grilling meat on skewers, much like kebab, satay or yakitori. Choices of meat are chicken, beef and pork. For vegetable options, there’s mushrooms and tofu. It was a very cold day of minus 20 degrees celsius. Our hands and feet were numb from the cold. Our socks and gloves were insufficient to keep us warm in this weather and I was already wearing double or triple layers of everything. My mum and I sat down at one of the stalls and ordered some skewers. The hawker immediately prepared a small pot filled with hot coals and set it by our side. It was a welcome respite as we warmed our hands over the heat. While we were served piping hot skewers, we experienced our first snowfall of the winter season in Shangri-La. Snow was falling on our heads and hands as we ate. Then a stray dog came and sat patiently by our foot, waiting to be rewarded with some food scraps. For some reason, this scene feels so surreal. We were joyful even though we were physically uncomfortable from the cold. It was a simple moment but there’s something about the combination of snow, hot food, the dog and of course the company of my mum that made this a highlight.
Helen’s pizza is an Italian pizzeria located in the old town. You would not have expected to find pizza in Shangri-La. The owner, Marco, is an Italian who met, fell in love and married a Tibetan girl. He named the pizzeria after his wife. He’s a very jolly good fella who would give us a warm welcome every time we visit.
I’ve had one of the best northwestern (dongbei) chinese dumplings 东北饺子 here. This is not Tibetan food but Chinese food. It’s a very small restaurant along Changzheng Ave 长征大道. Each plate had heaps of dumplings and we had several plates until we could eat no more. I remember that the restaurant owner and staff sat in a corner, their well trained fingers deftly wrapping the dumplings and trying to keep up with our orders as we ate like starving trolls.
Yak! Yaks 牦牛 belong to the same family as cows but are large and hairy and found only in the high mountain regions as they can survive the cold weather. Tibetans rear yak for their milk and meat. They make yak butter milk tea 酥油茶 and cheese from the milk. I’ve had a taste of fresh yak milk and it’s absolutely different from the pasteurised fresh milk we buy from supermarkets. There’s a thick layer of fat or oil floating on top of the milk. I did not like it at first but acquired a taste for it over time. It’s supposed to be good for you.
For the yak butter milk tea, it is basically milk tea with yak butter added to it. There is a salty version and a sweet version. It depends on your preference. I preferred the sweet version but it’s not really my cup of tea.
Yak meat is very tough and has a gamey taste. They make yak jerky marinated in various spices and sell them in small packets, much like the American beef jerky, except for the spices. For meals, they serve sliced yak meat stir fried with vegetables.
I like yak cheese. They make different versions of cheeses as well but the ones I had was the hard cheese. It was very salty but very flavourful and had a slight tinge of nutty flavour. The appearance of the cheese may turn you off at first as the rind is thick and looks very mouldy. Since the weather is so cold outside during winter, it keeps very well and we didn’t have to put the cheese in the fridge.
The cold weather in Shangri-La made me constantly hungry and I recalled most of the food being very good. Perhaps when you’re cold and hungry, the food tastes 100 times better. It may not taste the same if I were to go back in warmer weather.
During a trip to the local wet market, I was surprised to see them selling an animal that I would never consider eating. They were selling dog meat and I shudder to think that they could have been those stray dogs that were hanging around the old town. I would definitely not order a hot dog bun if it was sold here. They might actually use real dog meat.
Animals roaming freely
Here, the animals roam freely. I seldom see them caged up. Their yaks are all free ranging animals. They roam the mountains and feed on the grasslands at leisure. The animals would be let out of the house in the morning and at dusk, they would return by themselves and wait patiently outside the door to be let in. It’s amazing that they know their way home and I’m mind boggled that they would willingly return instead of running away. I have also seen pigs roaming freely outside of the houses and then going back into their home compound on their own. Do they know that they would end up on our plates?
There was an afternoon when I wandered out on my own with my camera, photographing the landscapes and scenery, when I happened upon a group of horses on the wide open field. They looked more like ponies, short and stubby with round bellies. I crept closer to the horses quietly to avoid startling them. At first they were curious and kept an eye on me. I kept very quiet and just watched. Once they were comfortable with my presence, I was able to take pictures of them at a close distance and they just let me snap away since they realise that I’m not a threat. It was a nice quiet moment out on the field with these wild and free horses. They are pretty tame so I don’t think they are wild horses. I might not be able to get so close to them if they were wild.
I mentioned earlier that there are stray dogs in the village. This is a story of Hua Hua the loyal dog. She gave birth to a brood of puppies one day near the hotel. A kind hotel staff decided to save them from the cold and smuggled them inside her own room. The puppies were so cute. Eventually the staff had to give the puppies away, since you’re not supposed to keep pets in a hotel. It’s not a pet friendly hotel. They tried to leave Hua Hua in the old town and each time, she was able to find her way back in a few days. They tried to leave her further away, but she managed to find her way back after a week. Then they drove even further and dropped her off near the Potatso National Park which was really far away. She found her way back in about a month’s time. Dog’s homing instinct is so fascinating. She did not have GPS to guide her back. The staff said that maybe she left her scent along the way so that she could find her way home like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs.
“if we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without”James Hilton, Lost Horizon
I started this story talking about the search for Shangri-La. The search, it seems, should start from within you. It depends on what your definition of Shangri-La is. What sort of utopia or ideal are you looking for? What is the meaning of life?
A physical utopian place may not exist. Physically visiting Shangri-La in Yunnan may burst your idealistic bubble about a utopia because it may not be exactly like what you imagined. It is a place that claims to be “The Shangri-La” and even officially named so. There are other countries who also claim to be the “Shangri-La” that is mentioned in James Hilton’s book. The use of the name “Shangri-La” is a political strategy to commercialise the area and draw tourists to it. It would definitely become more commercialised as it is promoted as a tourist attraction and more people flock to visit it.
In this book “Searching for Shangri-La” by Laurence J. Brahm, he has a chapter on “finding Shangri-La in a cup of tea”. To the amusement of my sister, I tried to do that by literally looking in my cup of tea. Perhaps I should empty the cup of tea and look at the tea leaves like what Harry Potter’s divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, did. Read the tea leaves to predict the future.
But I digress. Here’s a quote extracted from the book. It was from Laurence’s conversation with the pop star Zhu Zheqin 朱哲琴, also known as “Dadawa” :
“The real Shangri-La is in you… First step, you must have an ideal world in your mind. That is really important for people. But the ideal world for each person is different. You have your own mind, your idea, your country. For everyone, this is different. It is our refusal to make all things just like one thing. Everybody can have his own world in his own mind…Shangri-La in my life is a pure heart. When you love people, when you communicate with people. When you feel sad, when you feel happy, it is just pure. You have no conditions. For me, Shangri-La is the real world. Remember the Buddhist saying, ‘Share with others’.”
I shall end this off with another quote which I always refer to when I’m at the crossroads, but I’m not sure about the origins of this quote :
“Life is like going on a journey.
We make choices along the
way that will lead us to
different opportunities and
different challenges. We make
decisions that we will either
regret or rejoice.
Many times, as we stand at the
crossroad of life, we wish we
can see what’s ahead.
We wish someone will show us the way.
No matter what decisions you
make, always remember:
You always have a choice.
Do not let yourself down.”
Hostels and guest houses in the old town
Places to visit :
Dukezong old town square 独克宗古城
Tancheng Square 坛城广场
Potatso National Park 普达措国家公园
Blue Moon Valley 蓝月山谷石卡雪山景区
Songzanlin Monastery / Lamasery 松赞林寺
Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain 玉龙雪山