Shangri-La Di Da

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The van wove along the Himalayas as the sun fell behind them, lining the clouds hanging between us and Shangri-La in gold. Soon, colour fell from the earth and Charlotte, Geraldine, Eric, and myself watched the world pass by in short flashes from our headlights until the lights of Shangri-La at last lit the night. It was 9:30 and after checking in to the Dragon Cloud Guesthouse we wandered around and found some drinks and fun at a nearby bar. It turned out to be quite a great night, we were all having a blast and probably too many drinks (especially at an altitude of 3500m, where one drink is effectively two) until finally we left and let our hosts close their very profitable bar for the evening. It was now past 2 AM and we had slightly missed our guesthouse’s midnight curfew, and so we stood knocking and pounding on the doors until we realized nobody was going to answer and we were stuck outside in the chilly mountain air and drizzling rain. Eric saved the day by scaling a wall and opening the door for us from the inside.

The way the day prior had gone, sitting in Tina’s with Eric and the girls, I was worried. Even so early, it felt competitive. The girls had gone up to Jade Snow Mountain and loved it, gushing excitedly. Eric and I had used that day to start our Tiger Leaping Gorge trek and it was likewise a great day. In telling this, Eric sounded defensive on price especially, as though they’d paid so much for a great time where it had cost us virtually nothing. Which, of course, upset the girls who felt the implication was that they were stupid or rich and foolish with their hard-earned money. So I took the middle line (which was easy as it was exactly how I felt) that yes our day in Tiger Leaping Gorge had been great but their photos at the top of the mountain (4600m) looked great and I would’ve loved to do it if I had more time and I could afford it. And so it went on every topic until this tension was discussed over drinks the night prior. After this, we had a great time together.

So it was rather unfounded worry that I would always be in between them. I should’ve been worrying instead about a good place for breakfast. The girls don’t do Chinese for breakfast and after so many drinks a western breakfast was sounding like a great idea. We … dined? … at Rose CafĂ© in the old town. Eric’s curry rice came first, then five minutes and my American breakfast did. This meal is one egg, two pieces of cold toast, some dried bacon (?), and fries. Gerri’s English breakfast never came despite asking and reminding them twice. Finally a third inquiry revealed they’d forgotten and it very slowly came out, tasting horrible; Inedible, even for me. There was a mystery meat permeating the translucent gook that left a yellowish stain. Eric and I got her breakfast taken off the bill after a lot of arguing from him and me finally giving a 30 second slightly angry summary of why we weren’t paying for it.

It was a bad start to the morning, especially after so much searching and hunger. We eventually made our way to the famed Shangri-La monastery after some rest, and the sour mood was lifted almost instantly. It stood majestically on the hillside, with three golden towering buildings surrounded by homes for 60,000 Tibetan monks. The first building we went in was filled with religious paintings of the Circle of Life, the Path to Enlightenment, and various deities of whom I have neither knowledge nor understanding. The temples were red and ornately carved and painted and a massive and spell-binding Buddha sat in the middle as all four stories wrapped around him, giving an even more imposing air. We saw the other buildings in the monastery as well, of course, but they weren’t as awe-inspiring. And naturally, there were plenty of monks lingering around. On our exit, we were even on the bus with many monks and a few other Chinese and Tibetan people. I attempted to get the photo I’d missed the first time, the view of the monastery from further away, dug into the hillside. I noticed the bus stop and was thankful, thinking we were picking someone up. I took my photo and then noticed the whole bus staring at me and smiling. The driver had stopped the bus to let me take a photo. Ah, China!

That night was a quiet one, perhaps because we spent far too much money on a hotpot that was decent but definitely not worth how much we paid for it and left us all smelling of yak. On the positive side, this allowed us to wake up early and this time Eric and I got a local breakfast (8 quai/yuan each) and the girls seeked out their western fare while the two of us went looking for some hiking shoes. He was coming up to Fei Lai Si for some hiking with me and his shoes were in a dire state so this was a necessity. We didn’t find anything and made our way to the square to meet the girls at 1:00, where all four of us had some grilled eggplant, zucchini, chicken, mushrooms (yes, Mariah, mushrooms!), and various other tasty selections before walking up to a big temple we’d seen over the city yesterday.

The temple did, in fact, turn out to be a temple on a hill, and a massive prayer cylinder spun beside it. We were shocked to learn that the cylinder was turned by hand, and then gave a push ourselves. Unsure of what else to do in Shangri-La, we opted to get lost. We had been making fun of Charlotte’s uncontrollable desire to go places that were blocked off after she was scolded for entering a Tibetan monk’s room accidentally at the monastery, and she would now go peeking in slightly ajar doors and things like that. One door she noticed was the Cultural Preservation Centre though she didn’t go in this one. I decided if a door was going to be opened, this was the one, not someone’s home, so we opened the door to take a look and wound up having the best experience of our time here. We were greeted by some painters and a woman showed us some of their paintings and what they were trying to do with the centre. And then she invited us to have tea with the monk living there which we eagerly did.

It was an excellent hour. We chatted over tea, had watermelon, and asked him questions about his life, Buddhism, Tibet, and being a monk. He showed us photos of his training in India and the students he teaches about Buddhism and art and, well, it was just a great time. We all left smiling and feeling like we had turned the corner on Shangri-La after the breakfast debacle and had, in fact, had a very cool experience. The four of us wandered around, glowing a bit, and found Eric some shoes and fixed his belt, then grabbed some dumplings and had a few drinks. It was to be my last night with the Belgian girls and in the short week I knew that I knew it was going to be a hard goodbye. They’re very positive and upbeat people that I will definitely miss but that is traveling and at least I wouldn’t be continuing on to the Tibetan border on my own. Eric was coming with me. Or was he...

Shangri-La Photos

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