Monday, April 12, 2010

Lost Horizon

We have three good days cycling to reach Zhongdian in the north of Yunnan, starting with a climb up from the Yangtze on a brand new and virtually empty road. We're slow climbers, but it gives us time to appreciate the views. Ha! Looking southwards we get another aspect of Snow Mountain in glorious sunshine, around the bend there's a view over the Yangtze valley to mountains off to the east. We climb through pine forest, and come across small villages and farmland now and again. Towards the top of our first climb we meet a tour group of cyclists flying down in the opposite direction. None have any luggage, of course. An Aussie woman yells "Nearly there!" But she's wrong. After this climb we have a descent and then another climb and a half before we reach Baishuitai, our destination. Still, she means well. At the top we're rewarded with better views north. A couple of men are leading a mule train through the woods and around a bend on a track. It's our turn to fly past a couple of straggling cyclists on their way up as we hurtle down to the village of Ha'ba. After a good late lunch we motor on, and are happy to find that after regaining some height, the road continues along the vallley at the same altitude. Off to our right the Yangtze is taking another dramatic bend to the east and we leave it behind, finally arriving in Baishuitai as the sun is dropping behind the mountains. The guesthouses are rudimentary, and just as we settle on one along come two other cyclists from the opposite direction. Stephane and Leen, from Belgium, stop at the same guesthouse and we chat over our meal in the evening. It seems the only foreigners in these parts are all on bicycles. Next day seems to take a similar pattern, with a big climb, a descent, and then another climb. Lunch is pot noodles from a shack shop in a large village. It's just enough. At the top of the second climb, where we're about 3700 metres, I get off and push - to stretch the muscles of course. And on the way down we have to find a spot to camp. Thankfully Gayle has got a kilometre marker to look out for, from some other cyclists' blog. We find the spot and make our first camp near to a babbling brook in a clearing amongst pine trees. Our third day starts with yet another climb. The good news is that it's our last big one. The bad news is that it's our highest, about 3900m, and a long one. But by now we're better acclimatised and feeling good. The pass eventually comes but here we encounter freezing winds and a barren landscape. We drop down into a bleak brown valley devoid of life except for a few yaks. Having left the Tropics we seem to have passed through the seasons in the wrong order, with summer, then spring and now this wintry scene. We hurtle past a phoney Tibetan village that's been adapted for Chinese tourists, and stop at the next place for yet another pot noodle. We're in Tibetan country now - that huge area of China where Tibetans are living outside of Tibet proper - and the women are wearing traditional clothes, jewellery, various headgear, and the familiar stiped apron. Ruddy cheeks are prominent.
Zhongdian has an old town now swamped by its new counterpart. A while ago the provincial authorities renamed the town Xiangelila (that's Shangrila to you and me), claiming that the town provided the inspiration for Hilton's novel. Essentially a cynical attempt to lure tourists here, it seems to be working, although there is nothing like the development we found in Lijiang or Dali. This means that the town feels quite normal, and if the weather wasn't so wintry, we might stay longer. As it is, we want to keep going and stop only to renew our footwear, visit the local monastery (sneaking past the ticket office), and fill up on the traditional local dish of pizza. In the evenings music is played in the old square and locals, women, men, girls and boys form a circle and dance to the songs. The first time we see this it's dark, and the event thrills us. There are old ladies in traditional clothes, old men in their big hats, young boogaloos in jeans and Rod Stewart haircuts, young women in the latest fashions, all performing an elaborate line dance. This communal act seems like an assertion of their ancient culture and traditions, despite the modernisation of their town and the Han influence that comes with it. Here is a shared act, a public display that asserts their ethnic identity. The next day we arrive a little earlier to see the dancing in the twilight. There are groups of Chinese and foreign tourists gathered with their large cameras pointing at anything or anyone who moves. Suddenly the whole scene just looks like another tacky Chinese tourist show. Lost Horizon indeed.

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