The Road to Fei Lai Si

Friday, July 18, 2008

Since receiving an email about Fei Lai Si from Dan (my Alabama friend), I’d wanted to go there. His letter was filled with such hyperbole and excitement that I unquestioningly added it to my itinerary. I had spent the last couple days in Shangri-La with Charlotte, Gerri, and Eric and now Eric and I were to head up to Deqin (pronounced Duh-cheen) near the Tibetan border while the girls made their way south to warmer climes of Yunnan’s tropical regions. So the four of us were at the bus station when we discovered that, in a lesson I’d still not learned in all my time traveling, the busses for Deqin were full that day. Even though we’d known for two days we’d be taking a bus sometime that day, we hadn’t booked it. I guess I like the freedom, but when you know where you’re going it makes a certain amount of sense to plan ahead. I didn’t.

There were two options. One was to wait another day and take a bus first thing in the morning – buying my ticket today, of course. The other was to negotiate a decent price for a car. I’d asked around and the going rate seemed to be 500 Yuan, which is, to be quite honest, a lot. Still, time was precious, another day in Shangri-La was not needed, and really, it’s a journey into the heart of the Himalayas of six hours. So I was soon in a car for 400, probably still too much, but bound for Deqin. Saying that the road there was magnificent is an almost criminal understatement. My driver, whom I initially liked, then had a bad feeling about, turned out to be quite a decent guy though he tried to bring on friends that hadn’t paid at my expense. We tried to sing Yellow Submarine, he tried to teach me a Chinese song, and eventually we just admired the scenery while he sung and I listened to my iPod as the inherent drama of the surroundings played itself out.

The drama starts soon after leaving Shangri-La. The car rises into the hills and on the left, the Chinese Grand Canyon plunges into the earth. As you lament that this marvel is passing by unexplored, the car rises over a ridge and drops into another canyon. The road follows the lay of the canyons so closely that it is as though the meager traffic on the highway has somehow worn the earth away after thousands of years. Soon the real culprit appeared as we moved off the valley floor – the Golden Sands river also known as the Yangtze, the mightiest river in China and one of the most important waterways in the world. My driver pulled over and I walked down a little path to see a spot where the river actually executes a complete hairpin around a mountain in its path.

Further along as the road climbs, villages cling to mountainsides and the gilded roofs of Tibetan monasteries boldly shine in the sunlight. The hills are mostly dry but from time to time, and especially near villages, rice terraces snake down the cliffs like vines on a stone wall. The road is making its way up to 4000 metres and getting better with every metre of altitude. Soon, asphalt gives way to cobblestone – and the road remains cobblestone for almost 50km! There is something to be said for being high in the mountains looking down a steep cliff and passing nomads walking with various baskets of goods in the middle of nowhere while the car bumps along like a wagon on a cobblestone road. Forget the van and you are back in the 1800s bumping along a road that has been used for centuries by traders with various wares to carry over the Himalayas. And as you bump and pass locals and look into bottomless valleys and the rolling hills you inexorably make your way up yourself.

Soon, you come around a corner and there – there – are the Himalayas in stark black and white, beneath a blue sky, and just behind a few hills topped with nomads’ tents and grazing animals. At last, I could see Tibet from my vantage point, 4000m above sea level on the eastern edge of Yunnan. For all intents and purposes, I was already in Tibet. The locals and nomads I met atop the mountain as I scoured the alpine meadows for photos were Tibetan as were most of the people in all the villages I would pass and stay in over the next few days. Only a Chinese cartographer had foiled my ambitions of being ‘in’ Tibet. Or perhaps I should be grateful for the opportunity to experience Tibet without the hassle of paperwork and permits that go with crossing that imaginary line.

Now, you’d think that the scenery had reached its climax, and perhaps it had, but even as our van descended the ridge to the other side of the mountain chain and towards Deqin, the drama did not follow. The sun was shining beautifully, mountains of red and green basked in the afternoon light, stupas lined the road of a Tibetan village, prayer flags carried their messages in the wind, and Deqin laid in the valley floor below. The weather, so unpredictable and often cloudy in this region, was impeccable. The Himalayas were laid out on the horizon awaiting our arrival like folded napkins on a dinner table. Some of them reached heights of over 7000 metres and absolutely dwarfed the massive hills in the foreground. We arrived in Fei Lai Si, just past Deqin, a little while later. And when I say we, I mean my van and another van of travelers who were also keen to go to Tashi’s Mountain Lodge.

Like Indonesia, I had done this trip alone - it was just me and the driver again. Eric had taken the lack of tickets as a sign that he was not destined to do the trek north and also bought himself a ticket south to reach Chengdu. Unlike Indonesia, I felt quite alone sitting in the passenger seat without the chorus of Belgian giggling or in depth discussions on film, politics, Canada, and China with my Montreal mate, especially at the beginning of the journey. It soon passed as the scenery filled my vision and my thoughts and now here I was arriving at Tashi’s with six other travelers just in time for an expensive but excellent dinner laid out on the table awaiting us. I was here at last, seven hours after leaving Eric at a bank in Shangri-La and the girls on a bus headed south, at the start of four of the greatest days on this trip.

Road to Fei Lai Si Photos

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