At this point it would be dangerous for us to return back to the US and attempt to rent an apartment. To put our living conditions into perspective, in Shangri La we thought that we discovered paradise – a toilet that flushes and a sometimes lukewarm shower that gently spits out running water. Can we stay forever?
About Shangri La, do you know that it’s located in China? Because I thought it was in India. I also thought it would be warm and tropical with lush trees and fresh fruit.
It’s not. At least not in November.
We pulled into Shangri La and thought that the bus was stopping for a bathroom break. The dusty, double lane roads and modern cement buildings don’t strike you as particularly tranquil. Then we were attacked by the roving bands of taxi drivers and realized that stop was the end of the line. Utopia my ass.
Shangri La is a concept, not a location. The best seller and blockbuster hit ‘Lost Horizon‘ took place in the fictional city of Shangri La, and consequently numerous towns in Yunnan, China have co-opted the name. There is actually a raging debate over what city is the true Shangri La.
We pushed our way through the Taxi bandits yelling back “Mei yo, mei yo” and tried look properly offended so they would lose face and back off. What the hell were we doing in this nowhere town with square cement buildings and little-to-no atmosphere? What happened to our gorgeous Tibetan cowboys and wandering Yak? At least it was warmer, the temperature hovered around a sultry 50F.
We soon discovered that Shangri La is separated into the tourist section, Old Town, and the real-life section, Regular Town. The bus station was in Regular Town, a place made of quickly constructed commercial buildings, trucks puffing out black smoke and ordinary people going about their everyday business.
The Old Town section is small maze of cobblestone pedestrian streets, women in traditional costume and ancient wooden buildings decorated with prayer flags. It’s relaxed, welcoming and somehow, western.
After the death ride from Litang perhaps we needed a little western love, or at least some scrambled eggs and coffee. But after a two days, life in old town begun to ring false: the women in traditional dress were there to entertain tourists, the reconstructed ‘old’ buildings housed shop after shop of chincy nicknack, there were even Thanksgiving menu at local restaurants!
I suppose that we don’t appreciate the easy life because this offended our sense of adventure – we have our Chinese Bus Survival Badge for God’s Sake! – so we bucked the trend. Our Thanksgiving meal was Barley and Yak, and Tibetan bread with Yak butter. Our German-Belgian traveling buddy happily shared her potatoes (which she ordered at every meal and therefore we ate for three straight days. Hannah, you cracked me up.)
With our stomach’s rolling with beefish-venisony Yak meat, the next day we set out to find what makes Shangri La so famous – the monastery. God knows we haven’t seen enough of those!
Somehow we didn’t find it. But we did find the real world of Shangri La and it was much, much better than any revived ancient tourist town. China has a unique ability to mask reality with a thick guise of modernity, allowing tourists to see what they want to see (restaurants with egg and cheese sandwiches, expensive clothing stores and souvenirs). Leave the city and you that’s where you find real life.
We noticed that Tibetan women manage the bulk of all work: they farm, milk the yak, collect the dung, build the houses, cook the food, raise the children. Enterprising ladies block the road, and make a quick buck by charging 5 yuan to each passing truck. The women don’t just manage the entire house, they build it too. We watched as an entire village worked to build a new home: the women in pink scarves carried wood beams on their back, while men watched from their position on the roof.
We happened upon farm upon farm of yak, baby pigs and horses (all of which I tried to befriend). We wandered down dirt roads where raggamuffin children followed us, wanting to pose or play with the digital camera. As we were playing the kids, a gentle old monk walked over to say hello. The little boy smacked him in the balls. Real life.
Perhaps this wasn’t the Shangri La that I imagined (lush golf courses and massages at the spa) but I’m learning that luxury can be found in much simpler things. In Shangri La, luxury was having an internet connection that allowed me to place a Thanksgiving video call with my family. Luxury was having warm toes in my single twin bed thanks to the electric blanket. The small things, you know?