Shangri-la: A day in Lost Paradise
How I nearly died- and survived in the Tibetan town of Gyalthang, popularly romanticised as Shangri-la, 3,200m above sea level, surrounded by lush grasslands and soaring mountains.
Day 1: Journey to the fabled city of Shangri-la
After another few hours on the bus, almost another 200km later, We alighted just outside the old town and began our search for the hostel. It soon became apparent that Shangrila was nothing like any of the earlier Chinese cities in my earlier stops, and Mandarin almost felt like a foreign language here (they’re mostly able to speak Mandarin but sounded noticeably different from people from the earlier cities). The population was mostly Tibetan and certainly a refreshing change of environment after almost 2 weeks in cities with seemingly much more identical cultural backgrounds (though still quite a vibrant mix). Other than the ethnic mix, the architecture and atmosphere felt distinctively different too, and at times I wondered if I were still in China.
We got a little disoriented and asked a guy who was dressed like a cowboy for directions. Turns out he wasn’t a local but was here to start a business. Had a nice short chat, and he was able to provide directions for us to find our hostel, not too far away from where he was, at the Moonlight Square. I doubt he was moonlighting though.
At the hostel, we met a traveller from another part of China who had just arrived, and went for dinner together. It was a nice cultural exchange over dinner, though I thought some of his perceptions of the world, as a Chinese citizen, felt a little scary.
After hearing so much about yak butter tea, I was excited to finally be able to try it in Shangrila. It appears that there were fake ones around, but we were fortunate to find a restaurant opened by a very friendly Tibetan guy selling traditional Tibetan food. The tea comes in quite a huge kettle and is probably enough for 5 or more people. While the first few cups were interesting, the pungent smell was soon too overpowering and it became hard to appreciate the rest of the pot. I’d still recommend it to the adventurous though.
At 3,200m high, agriculture is hard and most fruits are brought in from the south, resulting in generally pricier fruits (and other foodstuff). Fortunately I bought these just before leaving Lijiang, where it was considerably cheaper (though not cheapest). I savoured the last bits of fresh fruit I was to have for the next few days.
Day 2: Not very funny altitude sickness
Not sure if it was the copious amounts of yak butter tea I had after dinner (which was suppose to help prevent), or something else, but I woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweat, with a mind numbing headache, and feeling incredibly nauseous and giddy. I had spent the past 2 weeks in Yunnan, over 2,000m above sea level, without much problem, but that night, at 3,200, I knew altitude sickness had finally struck. It was quite a scary experience for me, as I rarely fall sick, having to rush back and forth to the toilet and puking my guts out (felt like it, at least). It was too early to head out for help, yet I couldn’t fall asleep with that headache and nausea.
Morning finally broke after what seemed like the longest night ever, and with what little strength I had left, made it to my friend’s bunk to ask him for help in getting to some clinic. We made it to the hospital, and was put on drip. The nurse said it would take 20 mins, but after almost 20 mins, the fluid bag was still almost full, and I noticed my hand was swelling up. Turned out the nurse had missed the vein. Oh well, another 20 mins. And really thankful for my friend who just sat there waiting for me. It was the first time I had been on drip and I was surprised at what a bag of that stuff can do to my body. Felt much better after that but spent the rest of the day resting, while my friend explored the old town with another tourist. I’m really glad my friend did some exploring that day, as I would have felt really horrible if he had stayed in because of me.
It was probably one of the most terrifying experiences of my 50 days on the road, even more than being alone in the woods in Siberia. I was prepared to cancel my 4 day hike in the mountains just a few days later, but the rate at which my body recovered surprised me, and after all that trouble, it was just a little hiccup in the bigger adventure.
Day 2: Ganden Sumtseling Monastery and Shangri-la Old Town
The monastery entrance was a short bus ride out of town, and it’s unlikely to miss the stop, as the bus travels into areas that are off limits to regular tourists after the monastery stop so staff will usher tourists out of the bus. After purchasing a ticket( ¥115), a shuttle bus took us from the ticketing building to the monastery itself (quite a distance away).
The monastery had recently been restored and was in good shape (it had better be, with that admission price). Photography was not allowed inside prayer buildings thus most pictures are from the outside. It was a really interesting place to explore for a few hours, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Shangri-la. Or maybe unless you’re going to the actual Potala Palace. There were guided tours available for no extra charge at certain timings. We were a little early for the next tour so we explored on our own for awhile before joining the scheduled tour.
Main building with lots of monks praying/ performing rituals inside.
It felt like a few hours in a totally different place, kinda out of this world, before bring brought back down to earth. We spent a little more time exploring the gardens outside the monastery, taking in the views all around, before heading back to the city.
Back in the city, we went exploring Shangri-la old town.
Large parts of the old town was being rebuilt following a massive fire over a year ago that destroyed much of it. Nevertheless, the charm of the old town remains.
At the the Moonlight Square (Yue Guang Guang Chang), locals engage in some sort of traditional dance every night. Quite a sight to watch, as I seldom see such large groups of people dancing in Singapore.
Beside the square, there was a stairs leading to the Golden Temple, on a hill overlooking Shangri-la. Felt like there was a mix of styles in the design of the temple.
Day 3: Continuing the adventure with hiking in the mountains to Yubeng
Shangri-la (Zhongdian), Yunnan in Numbers
Actual travel dates: 25 May 2015 – 28 May 2015
Accommodation: ¥92(~S$20 for 3 nights)
Food: ¥60(~S$13) (I don’t remember eating anything the day I was sick, and some Tibetan guy I was trying to ask something from got us dinner for one of the nights. Amazing hospitality, and also why the amount on food was so low)
Transport (excl bus to Deqin): ¥3(~S$0.65)
Bus to Deqin: ¥67 (~S$15)
Total: ¥348(~S$76) (excludes medical bills covered by insurance, but I don’t think it was much)
And that’s it from the little lost paradise. Lots of other amazing natural wonders near Shangri-la, such as Pudacuo National Park, Baishuitai Water Terrace, Napa Lake and more, but unfortunately not on this trip, maybe next time. Next, to Yubeng.