Exploring Shangri-la

The city of Shangri-la looking toward the old town. Buddhist temple on the right and a huge prayer wheel on the left.

The city of Shangri-la has a population of around 120,000 and sits at 3200 m (10,498′). That may sound like a pretty good sized city, but on Chinese standards, it’s pretty tiny. The city consists of an old section where all the Tibetans used to live and a new section recently built up by the Chinese. This is typical of many Chinese cities—the original older city, and a newly developed section. For example, a couple years ago I was in Qingdao visiting an academic program there. I was staying in the new section of town and I didn’t like it. It was very modern with lots of new shiny skyscrapers, and shopping areas, but it was all very bland, with very few people on the streets.  It was even hard to find a decent restaurant that was reasonably priced. The border between the new city and the old was stark. Literally cross a street and it was like the old China that I know and love—tons of little shops and restaurants, crowds of people on the streets, old architecture, lots of character.

A street in Shangri-la's new town

Shangri-la’s old town was charming and quaint, but a little too “restored.” That is, they went a little too far with tourists in mind. It is full of little restaurants, coffee shops, stores selling all kinds of tourist trinkets, and guest houses.

Shangri-la's old town

Click on the link below to see a photo of the old town taken in 1999 (photo courtesy of Michael Paul)

Zhongdian Old Town

The new city is rather typical of most Chinese cities, bland concrete architecture, wide streets, and generic stores. But Shangri-la is still predominantly Tibetan, and that is who you see on the streets and in the markets. Yes there are Chinese run businesses and restaurants, but there is still a huge Tibetan presence. Tibetan women in this part of the Tibetan realm have a distinctive dress. Nearly all the women in the city seem to wear pants (oftentimes jeans), a bright blue apron. sometimes with a white apron over the top it, and a distinctive headdress that sometimes consists of bright fuchsia yarn wound together, or a woven scarf. They are very bright and colorful. Some women also wear brightly colored blouses or vest-like coverings.

Tibetan girls on the street

Traditional Tibetan headdress

One morning while out exploring we came upon a thriving street market. This is where we had our first taste of yak cheese. Though a bit strong and somewhat smoky, I kind of liked it. Michael was not too thrilled about it though.

Street market

Yak cheese

We then stumbled on an indoor market selling meat, produce, and other things. In Chinese we would call this a 农贸市场 nóngmào shìchǎng, or a farmer’s market. I love these kinds of markets and we had a great time wandering around taking pictures. The highlight was when Michael slipped on a big chunk of pig fat on the ground and almost went down.

Fresh market. The characters in the upper left say cài shìchǎng or "vegetable market"

Traditional shopping baskets

These kinds of markets sell an astonishing array of goods, from fresh meat and vegetables to dry goods and live animals in some cases. Below is a sampling of goods.

Chili powder

Fresh chilis, ginger, corn, and I think rhubarb

Tea

Fresh mushrooms

Fresh noodles

Roast duck

Chopping block

Fresh bacon

Frogs (not for pets)

Another day we were wandering around on the outskirts of town and came upon a mushroom market. July and August is wild mushroom season in this part of Yunnan Province and many Tibetans roam the mountains picking mushrooms to sell in the markets. This is one way for rural Tibetans to earn some cash.

Mushroom market

Bringing in the harvest

Wild mushrooms

More yak cheese

The road to Tibet, a few hours drive away.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Trekking in Shangri-la: Songzanlin Monastery

In late July of 2010, a colleague and friend of mine attended and spoke at an academic conference at Yunnan University in Kunming. Since we were in a wonderful and scenic part of China, we decided to take some time after the conference to do some trekking. We both have interest in Tibet and the border regions of Tibet where about half of all Tibetans live. Yunnan Province in China’s southwest has three Tibetan Autonomous counties. One of my former students had traveled to the Shangri-la region in upper northwestern Yunnan and the region seemed really interesting with a high Tibetan population. My friend had also visited the city in the 90’s.

In 2001, in order to attract tourists, the city of Zhongdian 中甸 zhōngdiàn was renamed Shangri-la 香各里拉 xiānggēlǐlā. The name Shangri-la came to the west from the novel written by James Hilton about a mysterious Himalayan utopia isolated from the world. Several places in the Himalayas have been thought to be this place described in his novel, but only China was brazen enough to actually name a town Shangri-la.

In the old days, (in the 90’s and previously) Zhongdian was a dusty, almost one street town, where it was not uncommon to literally see Kham Tibetan “cowboys” ride into town on their horses. The old town consisted of narrow winding alleys through a large cluster of old wooden frame buildings.  After 2001, that all changed as the Chinese spent millions of yuan “improving” the city. These improvements included completely rebuilding the old city gearing it toward the tourist industry, widening streets, building luxury hotels, restaurants, an airport, and so on.

After our conference, we flew to Shangri-la from Kunming. We had arranged to stay at a small guest house (Kevin’s Trekking Inn) where my former student had stayed. It was also recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The place was run by a Han Chinese guy and staffed with a couple Tibetans. It was a bit of a mixed bag. The rooms were okay, but the water was unreliable, meaning we only had water for a short time each day, and what we did have was pretty weak and very cold. They claimed that their well was low on water, but we suspected there was some politics going on, that and the fact that the guesthouse was on a hillside where it was probably more difficult to get water.

Songzanlin Monastery

Our first objective was to visit the large Songzanlin Monastery 松赞林寺 sōngzànlín sì outside of town. We took a local bus that ran the length of one of the main roads in town up to the monastery. The bus was full of Tibetans. It made a mandatory stop at a new building where we were forced to get off and buy a ticket to the monastery (all part of the tourist plan). From there we boarded another bus that took us up to the monastery. The monastery itself was originally built in 1679, and is the largest and most famous Buddhist monastery in the Kham region of Tibet. It is also known as the little Potala Palace because of its traditional architecture. It sits on the side of a mountain at 10,827 feet. The whole complex consists of the temple, two lamaseries, and a large jumble of small wooden living quarters clinging to the hillside. My friend had visited this monastery in the early 90’s and reported that the monks were very friendly and showed him all around. We were looking forward to this kind of reception but were disappointed that even though we spoke Chinese, we received a pretty chilly reception. They did not seem to be interested in talking to us. I suppose at this point they were tired of all the tourists traipsing around their monastery.

Yak butter candles

Prayer wheels

We spent several hours wandering around the complex of temples and houses. All the structures were made of wood and a maze of narrow alleys cut through the dwellings.

Houses around the monastery

Houses adjacent to the monastery

House facing the monastery

Behind the monastery were many more houses, many of which seemed to be made of rammed earth and wood.

Houses behind the monastery

We walked through this small village and climbed to the top of the hill behind the monastery. There were the customary prayer flags as well as beautiful views of the valley.

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags are inscribed with prayers and mantras and are said to bring good luck. The wind carries these prayers across the countryside. For more information on prayer flags see, http://www.prayerflags.com. From the top of this hill there were nice views of distant Shangri-la, as well as distant mountain ranges, and surrounding farm and grazing land.

Shangri-la in the distance

We hiked off the back of the hill down into another valley with a few traditional Tibetan houses.

Traditional Tibetan houses

Racks for drying the barley crop

At the end of this valley was another small village full of traditional wooden framed Tibetan houses. These houses consist of a gate that leads into a courtyard. The houses are three stories with animals, (pigs, chickens, cows), on the ground floor, living quarters on the second floor and storage on the third floor. These houses were pretty nice. We would later stay in a much more rustic Tibetan house.

Songzanlin Monastery from a nearby village

Typical gate at a traditional Tibetan house

Traditional Tibetan house

After walking around for most of the day, we were really feeling the altitude and were tired, thirsty and hungry. We found a nearby restaurant and had a pretty basic (i.e. not very good) meal. But it was nice to sit and rest a bit before we took a bus back to Shangri-la.

Monks in front of the small restaurant

Feeling the altitude

Tibetan girls in the restaurant

I do not recommend that you go poking around in restaurant kitchens in China as they can be pretty unsanitary. But I couldn’t resist a peak into the kitchen of this place. After all it was right next to where we were sitting. They certainly weren’t trying to hide anything.

TO BE CONTINUED

你吃饭了吗?“Have you eaten yet?”

To say that Chinese life revolves around food and eating is not an overstatement. Food is at the core of literally every Chinese holiday and a multitude of everyday activities. In fact, a very common greeting in Chinese is 你吃饭了吗? nǐ chīfàn le ma? “Have you eaten yet?”  It is an expression of well-being, or concern for the other individual. This seems pretty logical coming from a country that has endured centuries of on and off famine.

Food is so important in Chinese culture that the language is full of food and eating terminology. In fact, a search in the wenlin electronic dictionary for the word 吃 chī “to eat” found literally pages and pages of words and expressions that incorporate this word. A similar result was found with the word 食 shí also meaning “to eat” in many Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese. A sampling of the these terms include:

吃苦 chīkǔ eat-bitterness = bear hardship

吃力 chīlì eat-strength =  strenuous effort

吃醋 chīcù eat-vinegar = to be jealous

吃亏 chīkuī eat-loss = suffer a lose; come to grief

吃惊 chījīng eat-surprise = to be startled or shocked

A couple other food related expressions that are commonly used in everyday speech include:

铁饭碗 tiěfànwǎn       iron rice bowl = to have a secure job

炒鱿鱼 chǎo yóuyú    fry squid = to be fired, as in“他炒了我的鱿鱼” tā chǎo le wǒde yóuyú “He fired me” literally, “He fried my squid.”

吃不了兜着走 chībuliǎo dōuzhe zǒu

carry away leftovers from a meal = to get into serious trouble; for example if I said, 你吃不了兜着走 nǐ chībuliǎo dōuzhe zǒu  means that you are in serious trouble. Obviously the meaning in this expression is metaphorical.

China truly is one of the great ancient cuisines, along with France and Greece. It is a cuisine that has survived and evolved for thousands of years. What most Americans do not realize is that Chinese cuisine varies dramatically across the country. In other words, there is not just one kind of Chinese food, but rather many kinds of Chinese food, that use different ingredients, different methods of preparation, and different methods of cooking. There are also popular dishes that you can find all over China.

Below are a few photographs of some dishes I like to eat when I travel to China. In a later post I’ll discuss some of the different kinds of Chinese food.

鱼香茄子 yǔxiāng qiézi; fish flavored eggplant

宫宝鸡丁gōngbǎo jīdīng; Kung Pao Chicken

番茄炒鸡蛋 fānqié chǎo jīdàn; scrambled eggs with tomatoes

I don’t know the origin of the eggplant dish below, but I have only found it at one very small restaurant in Nanjing. It is truly delicious—spicy, sweet, and crunchy.

蟠龙茄子 pánlóng qíezi; coiled dragon eggplant

四季豆 sìjìdòu; green beans

南京盐水鸭 nánjīng yánshuǐyā; Nanjing salted duck

穆斯林羊排 mùsīlín yángpái; Muslim lamb ribs

烤鸭 kǎoyā; roast duck

And finally some dimsum dishes from Hong Kong.

Yuantong Temple 圆通寺 Kunming

A couple years ago a friend and I were in Kunming for an academic conference and decided to visit the famous Yuantong Temple. It was originally built in the late eighth century, but like all old structures in China, it has been rebuilt many times. It is a working temple with quite a few resident monks. It is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan Province. Pilgrims come from all over the area to pay their respects.

At the temple there are classes on Buddhist scriptures as well as many oridinary citizens praying. We observed several gatherings of people in the various pavilions singing, chanting, and praying together.

I really enjoy visiting Buddhist temples in China. Usually they are are very peaceful and a welcome break from the frenetic pace of large Chinese cities. I like talking to Buddhist monks about their background, why they decided to become a monk, their daily activities, and so on. I’ve had some very interesting conversations over the years. I remember at a monastery in Xi’an once chatting with a middle-aged monk. We were strolling through a quiet back courtyard with no one else around. Out of the blue he pulled out a handful of kettle corn from somewhere inside his saffron robes and offered it to me. My first thought was, “where did that come from?” I graciously accepted his simple gesture.

Another time at the Lingyin Temple and monastery in Hangzhou I struck up a conversation with another monk. After chatting for awhile he offered to show me around. After a brief tour of the main hall, he ushered me into his office. I was surprised to find a computer, fax machine, and other modern electronics. He offered me a cup of tea and we sat on burnished wood chairs as he explained why Buddhism is important to him.

Below are a few pictures from the Yuantong Temple in Kunming.

I’m not sure why the water is so green, but that is how it really looked. And it was full of fish and turtles.

Tending the incense and wax fire

One of the many resident monks

Detail of stone lion carving

Worshippers

A sleepy little lady

Monk shoes