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Monday, October 24, 2005

Shangri-La (Part 1)

By way of note: for anyone coming to this site from Footprints recruiting, you would be best served by going to my archives from February to June for information on teaching, living, and traveling in Taiwan. There is some pretty helpful stuff there (well, I think) and a lot of pictures from around the island.

So here I am in Shangri-La. Or am I? I don't know. A few things first. In Chinese, the pinyin would be "Xiang ge li la," and this name is applied on buses headed for ZhongDian. I spent a total of ten minutes there, long enough to relieve myself and buy a bus ticket on to Deqin, which others consider more Shangri-La than the official Shangri-La, if the place even exists at all.

I took a night bus from Kunming to ZhongDian, the only mishap being a blown tire about two hours in. After a half-hour spent fixing it we were off again and arrived in ZhongDian about 8. For some reason I decided on the spot to hop on the first bus to Deqin. This meant 6 more hours on a winding mountain road with scenery as stunning as one might expect for a region so close to the Tibetan border. If you look at a map now, in fact, you will see that I am quite close to Tibet, Myanmar, and the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. I am near the Mekong River and am surrounded by mountains reaching well above 15,000 feet.

Arriving in Deqin, I was persuaded by a tour guide from LiJiang who is accompanying a German couple on their travels, that I should go just a bit further, to a viewing area for Snow Mountain which is about 10 KM from Deqin. After looking over a huge billboard at the bus station featuring the mutilated heads and bodies of people who have died in car crashes I hopped on the last bus of the day. I took a bed for 20 RMB and then strolled around, wondering why I had come to this place as I did not know much of anything about it. Snow Mountain, though (and I may not be quite right on the name of it as I don't have the Chinese handy, but I think this is right) [seems to be "Meili Snow Mountain"--ed.] is a major tourist site in the area, and a bit of a sacred place. Apparently Tibetans will make pilgrimages, walking around the base of the mountain, taking a few weeks to finish the route.

Due to clouds, though, the mountain's peak was not visible and so we were left to imagine what lay behind the clouds. We did see the glacier that spills down from the mountain and which, I think, is the lowest glacier in either the world or in China, one or the other. I am just a fountain of information today, huh?

I walked to a small monastery nearby and then spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening in a nice, if overpriced cafe/restaurant next to my hotel. They played good music, though, and I needed the coffee after the bus rides so I could not complain. Also, the Germans came by later and we ate a hot pot together and with the wind blowing and the temperatures now high, this hit the spot.

Back in the hotel, in this hotel which was not much to look at and is in the middle of nowhere, I took advantage of wireless internet for the second or third time in China.

Today, this morning, back to Deqin. Then a walk through town, along the busy streets crowded with Tibetans and monks pestering people for money (one stood over me while I was eating this afternoon for a good five minutes muttering prayers or words cursing my existence. I had already given money to a few of them though, and I'm sorry, but when I'm eating and reading, please, leave me alone).

Then I came to the market and took some pictures that children under 13, vegetarians, and anyone who loves animals will not enjoy. Huge slabs of meat with the hairy tail still attached (donkey, maybe, or yak?). Pigs' heads...very surreal those. A man slicing open a sheep. A cow's head lying on the ground, stripped to the skull, with glassy eyes looking up. Etc.

I started walking out of town then, back towards Snow Mountain. The mountains tower above, across a valley through which runs a narrow river. A few small towns as well, the roofs orange from the drying corn. Because it is fall, the trees are changing color, and this is the brilliance of the scene (yesterday on the bus ride here as well), with huge swaths of yellow and gold, with blood red highlights, spilling down in arrow shapes, towards the stripped brown red of the base of the mountains. It is a bit like when the aspens change in Colorado. Mountain goats and oxen share the road and the hillside, and cow bells clink and clank and sound a bit like an out of tune Christmas carol. Smoke coming from the valley and gun shots echoing across the tops of the mountains. Tibetan men and women collecting branches with leaves that have already changed, and leaves fluttering down across the road. A woman, 5 feet tall if she were straightened, hunched over a cane smiling an empty-toothed grin as she hobbles by. A stretch of brown terraced field running down and through a small vilage. Prayer flags fluttering against a golden backdrop. The clouds not high above, thick and then breaking, a patch of blue light and a beam of sun enlivening the slopes, bringing the colors to life. It is beautiful here, of that there is no doubt.

I will admit to being in a bad mood at the moment, and before I explain why, I will accept responsibility, as one should always ask prices first. I walked for a good six hours without eating and so returning into town I went straight to a restaurant. I ordered a stir fry of cucumber, tomato and pork. She brought the plate, an average size, and a bowl of rice. After eating I asked for the bill. 17RMB. 17RMB? My mouth dropped and I am sure I spit those words out. You've got to be kidding me, I said. I argued with her for about 5 minutes and in the end paid it because I should have asked the price first (had she quoted me that much I would have laughed in her face and walked out). She was trying to say that things are more expensive here because Deqin is so far from everything. Fair enough. Water costs 2 RMB instead of 1 or 1.5. I can deal with that.

And maybe, just maybe, she was not trying to take advantage of me. And perhaps I sound like a real ass complaing about paying 2.50 USD for a meal. To put this into perspective though:

In Guizhou, the exact same meal, with the same ingredients and the same smoky flavor would cost 6 RMB, with the rice free (and a bowl of soup for good measure). In Kunming it would have been between 5-7 RMB based on the places I ate there. This means I paid 2.5 to 3 times what I would pay in those places. I think it would be a bit like going to Montana and being charged 3 USD for a cheeseburger at McDonalds, you know, because Montana is kind of not to close to things.

Sorry for the complaint, but I hate being taken advantage of, and I hate being to blame for it even worse. So if you are coming to Deqin and you are used to very cheap food, ask the price first!

Otherwise, enjoy life in Shangri-La.

5 Comments:

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