Finally we have a day to remember, one where we see no other tourists, western or otherwise. We are headed for the monastery of Tenduling (Dondrupling in Mandarin), founded the same year (1667) as Ganden Sumtseling in Shangri La. It’s a good 100km, and the spanking new road cuts swathes through the rugged landscape – criss-crossing bridges over the Yangtze gorge, suspended on monolithic pylons and viaducts, boring through impenetrable hillsides with 3 km long tunnels. Everywhere roadside kiosks are springing up to cater for the long-distance lorry drivers – and the Chinese tourist. This is the main road to Lhasa. It is breath-taking and impressive. Whatever you say about the Chinese, they are single-minded masters of road-building and engineering.
The land around the river is fertile and the famers are growing tobacco, maize, potatoes and barley and, more recently, green vegetables that are for local export. The hills are said to host bears, leopards and blue sheep, although I would be surprised they have not been hunted out by the Chinese soldiers. We stop every now and then to take photos; and then we are halted three times by new and impromptu roadblocks where unpleasant Han solders demand all sorts of paperwork and even confiscate our driver’s licence until the return journey.
We finally arrive at the monastery, its golden dome glistening starkly against the mountain-side. A bathroom trip is required before we enter; I spoke too soon in an earlier blog about cleanliness. There had been no running water in our open trench for some time – need I say more. Except that the view from there is quite spectacular.
In the monastery courtyard, a young monk is doing the washing in a twin tub; two teenagers are playing a game like our boys used to when they were kids, using discs that you slap down with a loud thwack. Inside, all was red and quiet, save for the incessant tapping made by a group of monks making a sand mandala, just like in House of Cards. What a privilege to see that. In addition to the yak butter lamps, which smell horrid, there are some pictures made from the same, which are rather charming. We climb all the way up several vertiginous staircases to reach the top, where the Abbot has his room, and where we see pictures of the Dalai Lama. It is a tranquil spot, which largely escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Our guide tells us that many monasteries and villages buried their holy relics and statues in big water storage tanks during the difficult years.
We have a disgusting lunch (cancel the yak I say just in time, so we just have oily vegetables) in a filthy roadside inn in one of the villages that straddles both Yunnan and Szechuan; this year a bridge joining the two has been opened. Here they grow vines and make wine, and we taste some delicious local nectarines. I give the public loo a wide berth.
Our final stop is to the pottery village of Nixi: again we are the only visitors and we stroll quietly though the walnut groves and herds of nonchalant cows, visiting the potter – we buy one of his yak teapots – and his house, which still retains the ancient Tibetan dresser, cupboards and cooking pots. It is also the home of the Abbot of the Tenduling monastery and we tiptoe into the shrine, complete with surprising photos of the Dalai Lama, and into his bedroom, piled high with books.
In the evening, our guide takes us to a huge restaurant owned by one of his village friends – his village is hours away in Szechuan in fact, and sits at 4000m – where we taste another form of yak – yak pie! Ross braves some more butter tea. I have been abstaining from drinking recently – altitude sickness still renders me a bit off-colour – so sip some pu’er tea. Then to a Tibetan cultural show – dancing in colourful costumes, telling the history of Tibet. The audience is entirely Chinese and films the whole thing. As I watch the sumptuous display of professionalism, I ruminate that this is how the Chinese like their minorities: anodyne, attractive, on show and under control.
And so our journey ends on a high note. Reflecting on the 11 days we have spent in SW China I have come up with a few tips for others who wish to visit this region. And I do think it is worth visiting; I just wish we could have done it justice.
- There is almost no such thing as off-the-beaten-track in China; certainly not offered by a travel agent, whatever they say. We paid a premium for this trip with a VERY strict briefing after our crowded Myanmar holiday and received all the assurances that we would be having a special experience. The hotels were lovely – but we could have found them on TripAdvisor had I had the time (too busy on the book) – but the itinerary was mainstream. That’s why I paid the travel agent! Not happy…
- Work out where you want to go, research the hotels on TripAdvisor, buy a travel guide too, book your flights independently, and then ask the hotels to suggest excursions for you. The Bivou, for instance in Shuhe/Lijiang, could have organised much more interesting trips for us – to Lugu Lake and Baoshan Stone City, which really are off the beaten track and where the accommodation is simple but the adventure would be rewarding. I expect the Linden Centre could have done the same. I could kick myself.
- Avoid various attractions which the tour operators take for granted you will want to see: cormorant fishing in Xizhou, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang; Tiger Leaping Gorge and the First Bend on the Yangtze (there is much finer scenery north of Shangri La). Limit the visits to Dali and Lijiang old towns to half a day but try to go to local markets wherever you are to see colour and everyday life. The manufactured towns are anything but real and only good for people watching.
- Be prepared for total lack of western loos and take lots of packs of tissues; napkins are never available either. Wearing a dress is more convenient on the whole…the floors are nearly always wet.
- Tibetan food is grim! In fact stick to the hotel if in any doubt – at least you can get the menu translated and not get your head blown off. Luckily our boutique hotels all served delicious food. We were only disappointed when we ventured out.
- Beware of altitude sickness and come prepared with some medicine. Diamox is what the pilots use apparently.
Despite my reservations, we had a fascinating few days, but I will never pay someone else to organise a trip to China again!
For a more erudite approach and better photos (mine are all on the iPhone) see Ross’s website.