Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Wild West of Sichuan

There are buses which are not there … or they are there but there are no tickets … or at least not for foreigners. Moving westwards from Shangri-La proved difficult, as first nobody wanted to sell us a bus ticket, then just one per bus. Eventually we made it to Xiangcheng, stepping stone in the far west of the Yunnan province, gateway towards Tibet, and northbound towards the Wild West of Sichuan province, our next destination.

This time there were no tickets, for there was no bus at all. After some back and forth we managed to pull together a group of people and took a minivan which made it in record time through beautiful rolling hills.

Litang, capital of yaks and cowboys and at 4,000 meters one of the highest towns in the world, was amazing. We just sat in foodstalls and watched the ethnically mostly Tibetan people in their traditional clothes, modern cowboys on their motorbikes, all sorts of animals in the streets. The city is surrounded by green hills and yak prairie, with low-hanging clowds and endless horizons that give you the feeling of being in the sky. Two Dalai Lamas were born here, and Litang has always been a center of Buddhism. The place is also known for sky burials, where the body of the deceased is sliced up and cut in order to serve as food for vultures – a spectacle we did not consider a tourist attraction.

Leaving Litang again was not easy. As told we went to buy our ticket in the morning, and -surprise- apparently all tickets had already gone (to locals). Only fierce insisting with the ticket saleswoman, who, as per the rules of her profession and as all her colleagues so far, was very unfriendly, bought us a ticket to ride. After ten bumpy hours on the Sichuan-Tibet highway, which basically is one big construction site, we made it to Kanding, halfway to Chengdu.

Ganden Thubchen ChoekhorlingGanden Thubchen Choekhorling
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From the Tiger Gorge to mythical Shangri-la

It was time to test lungs and legs – the hiking boots were calling to be used again. Trekking the magnificient “Leaping Tiger Gorge” turned out to be a great introduction into China’s wilder side. The popular gorge hike revealed the beauty of 4,000m high peaks that run vertically down into the longest river in China, the Yangtse river.

On the first day came the 28 bends, which meant a three-hour climb and a two-hour slippery descent in the rain through pine forests. Arrows helped to avoid getting lost. Our Spanish hiking partners set the pace and so we arrived at our guesthouse in record time, half way from the end of the trail. Exhausted, we enjoyed our cool beer and fried beef with rice and vegetables with a fantastic view on the Jade Dragon Snow mountains in the fading sunlight.

The second day was even more beautiful with waterfalls, criss-crossing streams, goat herds passing by. But the pain in the knees announced that the most strenous part of the hike was the last one: going first 1,000m down and then up a path leading to the rapids and the famous stone, which the legendary tiger is supposed to have used to jump to the other side of the river, thus giving the gorge its name. Having made it to the stone amidst the roaring brown Yangtse river was quite rewarding and exhilirating.

After the hike, we continued further north to a city with the famous name Shangri-la, where we started to breathe in the Tibetan air. Formerly known as Zhongdian, the city renamed itself in 2001 to attract tourists, claiming to be the fabled ‘Shangri-la’ of James Hilton’s 1933 bestseller “Lost Horizon”. Hilton’s novel tells a story of hijacked travellers who crash-land in a mountain utopia ruled by a 163-old man. Today, Shangri-la has become a synonym with paradise on Earth but especially a mythical Himalayan utopia, isolated from the outside world, and many places claihe title.

We didn’t find our Shangri-la there, but visited a 300-year-old Tibetan monastery complex near a lake, wandered around the old town with its white stupa and turned a huge golden prayer wheel three times. As there are said to be 12.4 billion “Om mani padme hum” inside, we made 37.2 billion prayers.

Devouring grilled yak meat and watching locals and Chinese tourists participate in a popular evening dance made the stay complete.

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Modern and ancient China

Coming from Nepal we must have boarded a time machine flying into Kunming, capital of the Yunnan province in southwest China. All of a sudden everything was organized and clean, people drove electro-powered scooters, buses cut their engines at the traffic light.

People have unlimited self-confidence, and signs of the unbelievably strong development of this country in recent years are everywhere. Expressways, roads, subways and tall buildings are under construction all over the map. Streets are full of new expensive cars. Consumption is the theme, and shopping opportunities are abundant. Recently, 22 fake Apple stores were discovered in Kunming. The fakes of the shops and products were so good that even the employees thought they were working for the real Apple.

The confidence of the Chinese also reflects in their behaviour towards us, for there are no more constant come-ons in the street, no more “Sir”, “Yes”, “Hey”, but just the normal treatment of tourists without exaggerated friendliness.

While some bus stops have their names written also in English, most of the time we struggle with the fact that we simply do not understand anything spoken or written and that people often don’t understand us (that does not prevent them from talking vividly to us in Mandarin).

After modern Kunming we wanted to see ancient China and made our way to the well-known historic cities of Dali and Lijiang. Unfortunately there were only more signs of the Chinese boom: Virtually thousands of Chinese tourists flock the streets and there’s barely anything left of historic flair. Every house is either a restaurant, a hotel, or a shop. Only when we took a pair of bicycles and explored the surrounding area we finally made it to somewhere that seemed to be ‘old’ China.

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Shiva, sadhus and the cremation ghats

The most important Hindu pilgrimage site for followers of Shiva, Pashupatinath, lies on the eastern side of Kathmandu. With an amazig enclave of temples, cremation ghats, ritual bathers and half-naked sadhus, the Nepalese claim it as least as holy as India’s Varanasi. In Hinduism it is believed that those who die and are cremated here get an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and re-births.

Before the 20th century, widows used to commit sati – to throw themselves in the husbands’ funeral pyres. Now, it is still widely believed that husbands and wives who bathe here together will be remarried in the next life. Despite its filth the Bagmati River is held by conservative Hindus to be the holiest one in the Kathmandu Valley.

The sight of bathers, worshippers, grieving families and one public cremation after another was something I’d never experienced before. Standing together with other pilgrims opposite the cremation platforms, I saw that the cremation rituals included the eldest son having his beard and head shaved, wearing white clothes of mourning. As you couldn’t actually see the body being burnt – covered with wood and straw – a local told me that the body is lit by the mouth. Finally, the ashes were swept into the river.

The sacred place also attracts sadhus – or holy men – who, although mostly an Indian phenomenon, are common at Pashupatinath, as many of them follow Shiva. They live solitary lives, have abandoned all possessions, subsist on alms, following the path to enlightenment. Some smear themselves with human ashes, symbolising Shiva’s role as the destroyer, who reduces all things to ash so that creation can begin anew.

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The fish spa quiz

Thanks to all who responded to our little quiz, which was:

What’s happening on this picture?

It’s part of a larger photo taken on our trip:

In the fish spa, tiny fish chew off spare skin. We saw this for instance in Thailand.

The next one will be much tougher ;-)

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