Da Li, Li Jiang, Shangrila, Friendship, New and Old Connections, Reflective Thinking
August 22, 2010 First Night in Da Li
On the last day of 2010, it is time for me to reminisce on the best trip I have ever taken this summer. Four months-a quarter of a year-have passed, but the feelings and memories are as fresh as lemon juice on a summer day.
My travel companion was my best friend in China, Leo. He traveled from Shanghai, while I departed from Beijing. We met in the airport of Kun Ming （昆明）, the capital of Yunnan Province. When I landed, Leo had already bought the bus tickets to Da Li （大理）. We devised our travel plans weeks in advance through numerous phone conversations. Considering we only had 8 days for the trip, we decided to bypass the metrapolitan capital to give ourselves more time in the more remote regions.
After 5 hours of smooth, uneventful bus ride, we reached the terminal in Da Li. When we came out of the gates, a gregarious taxi driver greeted us and offered to take us into the city for free. That was something unexpectedly good. We had a tingling of suspicion, as stories of swindlers and tricksters rang in our ears. While we weighted the situation in our heads, the taxi driver approached another middle-aged couple and made the same offer. Our eyes met with theirs, and we felt united in our common purpose and in the power of our company.
In the taxi, we drank in the passing sceneries. Voluminous gray clouds loomed ahead of us. We seemed to be charging into that tangled gray mess, like mission-bound warriors to save the besieged city. (fantasies fueled by my childhood love for Martial Arts books)
The taxi driver rambled on and on about his earlier job as an hotelier in Li Jiang (our next destination, which was famous for its traditional-styled architecture and leisurely pace of life). He sounded extremely authentic and gave us a handful of good travel tips. After a short search for a suitable hotel, he whirled us into a courtyard and pulled up in the parking lot. We looked around and recognized that this hotel was fashioned after the Bai ethnicity. He told us that he could get us great deals here, and indeed he gave us half the rate of what other tourists paid – 50 Yuan/night.
White walls with Bai characteristic decor - a not-so-authentic replication.
A recurring theme of his witty chatter, he could be our tour guide for tomorrow’s excursion in Da Li. He told us it is absolutely necessary for us to climb to the summit of Cang Mountain, and paddle to the origin of the Er Lake.（仓山一定要上顶，洱海一定要看源头). However, most travel agencies did not offer this ideal travel plan. His cavalier style of speech and laid-back manners convinced us that he was the man. We sincerely requested him to be our guide, which he gladly consented.
A drizzle wrapped the city of Da Li is a chilling mist, when Leo and I were having dinner at a local restaurant. We tried the house special – Rose Liqueur, 30% alcohol content. We gingerly took a small sip, grimaced at the pungent taste, looked at each other’s distorted faces – then threw ourselves into laughter over our mutual intolerance.
Lured by travel magazines about the bars here, we ambled around the cobblestone streets to check out the local night scene. The most popular was called Tang Dynasty. Leo got a beer and I got a glass of Baileys. This was the beginning of our journey. This freedom and total independence.
August 23, 2010 The “Authenic” Travel Plan
We soon became disillusioned as we looked up at the sign “Tian Long Ba Bu,”colored with gaudy paint. This was far from the unconventional and authentic travel we had looked forward to. We were half way up the mountain, about to enter a cave where the eponymous popular drama was shot.
Our taxi-driver-turned-guide smiled apologetically and told us the rocks were too slippery for more ambitious climbing.
No.1 Peak in the Cang Mountain? Where's the Guinness Record to prove it?
Locks of promises, covering the safety chains down the mountain
The next part of our day was spent on a three-hour cruise on the Er Lake. As we have began to suspect, we never saw the origin of the lake as our “genuine” guide had promised. This reality that we have been fooled only dawned upon us in an elusive and amorphous form. We were unsure whether this discrepancy between his descriptions and reality was due to the rainy weather or due to malicious intentions.
Taking a leap during a stop on an island
The sea breeze combing through Leo's short hair, making it a good commercial for Pantene.
Our early morning visit to an ancient mansion, abandoned by once-the-richest household in the neighborhood for tea business, was the closest contact we had with the local colors.
Dressed in Bai ethnic outfit - 风花雪月
”The Three courses of tea“ （三道茶，一苦二甜三回味）We have drank more than 10 courses of tea by the end of the day. In Afghanistan, three cups of tea marks the transition from stranger to family. In Yunnan, the three courses of tea symbolize the cyclical nature of events in life - first bitterness, second sweetness, third and last savoring.
Aug 24, 2010 Fun Day in Li Jiang
The train ride from Da Li to Li Jiang was delayed by heavy rain. The “interminable” ride could be interpreted as a small fortune for us, we experienced one of the eighteen oddities of Yunnan – that cars are faster than trains. With some bittersweetness, we could all attest to its veracity. When we stepped off the train at past midnight, we found the friend of our trusted guide from Da Li faithfully waiting for us (we presumed he had been waiting for three hours because of our delayed train).
The car took us through a winding pathway to the top of the mountain. The view from the open veranda/balcony on the second level looked over hundreds of tiled rooftops. The night view mixed with the cool mountain breeze transfixed us with its beauty. We felt levitated above earthly cares.
In the morning, the hotelier, an acquaintance of our hotelier in Da Li, offered us a ride to the famous attraction – Cha Ma Gu Dao (a.k.a. the Silk Road). We grabbed an unforgettably yummy breakfast at an obscure local bakery. We had Ba Ba （粑粑）, a type of baked bread that came in two flavors, salty and sweet.
We were slightly disappointed by the fact that the horses were lined up in order and we had no choice but to take the next one on the roster. Trifling discontents aside, we were excited to trace our ancestors’ footsteps and paid the 380 yuan ($55) happily.
The mountaintop view was breathtaking. The outlook we passed was called The Cliff of Star-Crossed Lovers (殉情崖), meant to be romantic and tragically alluring. We enjoyed a lengthy photo-taking session.
What is yonder? Where is the next train taking me? (the brooding Leo)
A moment to remember
On the way down, the narrow trail became muddier and steeper. I decided to switch horses with the man of the couple that we were traveling with. His horse always lagged behind because it was constantly chewing on grass or drinking from the spring. I had the confidence to bring its unruly behavior to a stop. However, the horse refused to obey any command I gave. It turned around and began trotting in the opposite direction. For fear of falling of on this steep hill, I shouted for our guide for help. Finally, I heard his boots splashing through the mud. Only under his firm grip, my rebellious stallion began to behave. Our guide tied his horse to mine and resumed our journey down. The horse coming behind me kept on biting my horse’s rear. It gave us a good fit of laughter at their uncouth banter.
The horse barely listens to anyone. Quick, snap. Photo Taken.
Next, we headed towards the old town that is second in fame to the old town of Li Jiang – Su He Gu Zhen (涑河古镇).
I had the best vermicelli (鸡豆凉粉)for lunch, a popular regional dish. It was made of chickpeas.
Woman from the Mo Suo tribe（摩梭人）, who made handcrafted scarves. Their homeland is in Lu Gu Lake (泸沽湖）, which would have been irresistible to our wanderlust. However we were there during the rain season. The roads leading to the secluded lake faced the danger of mudslide and falling boulders. The best season they said would be from March to May. That is our next plan, to see Lu Gu Lake and Yu Beng Village (雨崩村).
Quaint clothing shop where I bought an embroidered winter coat for Grandma
Gorgeous painting on leather
The day ended with a light drizzle and feverish expectations for tomorrow’s itinerary – beginning of our three-day journey into Shangrila.
Before going to sleep, we reached the shocking conclusion that surprised no one on an intuitive level – we had been cheated by the taxi driver in Da Li, then continued to be tricked by his accomplice in Li Jiang. The price we paid for horseback riding on the Silk Road was 3 times more than the regular price. What was more irritating? They took us on the side trail, not even the main path with the best views.
We realized that being swindled was the other side of the coin. The pristine beauty of nature versus the uncanny tricks of humankind.
Aug 25 - 27, 2010 Shangrila
Where do I begin? My pre-travel fantasies about a land too beautiful for words, or the unearthly paradise described in The Lost Horizon by James Hilton in 1933, or an untouched corner in the world that is gradually wearing down with the endless waves of visitors…
For everyone, Shangrila is a different experience. We do not need to formulate our travel with a list of things to do. However, I do think it is imperative that anyone wishing to see the real Shangrila go with a travel-exclusive zero-shopping group. It is probably slightly more expensive than shopping-included tours, but from the horrid stories I have heard about forceful buying, it is totally worth it.
For me, the most precious part of this journey was self-discovery. Standing on top of the mountain, listening to the whispers of the wind, I held three tall sticks of incense in my hands, and bent down to pay my respect for the Buddhas at Song Zan Lin Temple (松赞林寺). I felt a calling, from the past, from the heavens, from my deepest soul. I felt unified and at one with myself. On this day, at this special moment, I became Buddhist – more Buddhist than I ever was. I had prayed to the Buddhas for years and visited the temple annually with my grandma. But from now on, I would dedicate myself to learning more about the religion and to serving it in my particular way.
The incense before the temple
Putting on the Tibetan outfit
Pu Da Cuo National Park （普达措国家公园）, is another attraction that marked a beautiful impression in our memories. The bountifulness of the greenery, of all different shades of green, reminded me of Canada – the bike paths that I used to ride along for hours on end.
I was not afraid of the Yaks, because secretly I had the "cow" characteristic - stubbornness
Reflection in the water
Nice open view of the valley
Let me be a blade of grass in this ocean of verdant loveliness
August 28-29, 2010 Relaxation, Closer to Life
Our last two days in Li Jiang were lavished on sightseeing and enjoying the sensation of stillness in time. We changed our hotel to another that we found ourselves. We woke up late in the morning, walked around the meandering paths, regaled in local delights, and danced in some of the most highly rated clubs at night.
Cozy cafe，look who's in the corner?
Me and my mocha
Delicoius lunch by the river
Bells of promises
He heard a girl's voice singing "Let's go check out that cafe!"
The best free gift ever haha. guess what it really meant?
Ah Oh! Caught in my pleasure moment with Yak yogurt
One interlude that changed this pattern was my untimely illness on our last night. Leo had met a riveting dancer in the club the day before and he had been waiting to see her again. I retired early to my room to sleep, however due to a combination of fatigue and high-altitude scarcity of oxygen, I tossed and turned in agony for hours. Finally at 11:30pmsih, I got out of bed and knocked on our hotelier’s door. He kindly accompanied me all the way to the nearest hospital and helped me get an IV therapy. Originally, he sat beside me and waited for me to finish to take me back. However, the flow lasted more than 2 hours, and he had to leave to tend to the hotel. I finally fell asleep, with the reassurance of my recovering health and the comfort of the oxygen mask.
One person that I need to give special thanks for is Carlos. He gave me tremendous emotional support through that trying night. I did not want to call Leo because I wanted him to have a good time and even the good fortune of making friends with the dancer girl. When I told Leo the next day about my unnoticed trip to the hospital, his worried and anxious remarks made me feel guilty of hiding my conditions. I would never hide something so serious ever again, from my dear travel companion.
We took the train at night from Li Jiang to Qun Ming. This would be one train ride forever emblazoned in my memory. Little did I know what true connection meant, until I shared these couple hours with Leo talking about ourselves and the joys and sorrows of our short pasts. I know now, this is sharing of vulnerabilities, one of the most powerful channels of connection and communication. I will always remember the laughter we had, the whispers we tried so hard to muffle with our cupped hands, the linking of our foreheads as we narrowed the distance between us so to bring our volume to a minimum. We were kids once more, with our hearts wide open, freely accepting and giving thoughts and feelings to each other.
Thank you Leo, Thank you Shangrila, Thank you the number of kindred spirits whom I came into contact. The journey is only a beginning to my lifelong quest for self-discovery and deep connections.
Mocha, sitting lazily on the tabletop as the petals grow pink and fall from their stems
My perspective has changed, morphed, and expanded