At one point in our journey I actually advocated to Cesca that we skip China. That she didn’t listen, and talked me round, proves clearly that I don’t know everything and Cesca has some great ideas herself.
Oh, boy were my eyes going to be opened!
Entering the country via a large bus with lay down seats was fun. It rattled through the night towards the modern city of Guilin and the Li River.
This involved quite a monster journey across the south of China, avoiding the provinces recently touched by the Earthquake disaster. I slept most of the time until we dropped off Team Galloway at their first stop with a promise to meet up in 3 days. We then continued to the other end of the river with a view of taking the cruise down to meet them. This is one of the classic tourist routes in China and that should have given us pause really. While our hostel was very western friendly, with all the usual hostel fare such as DVD’s; cafe’s and good English speaking staff, it was inside “The Backpacker’s Bubble” and the trip down the river is exceedingly over-sold for what it was. I wasn’t impressed by it at all.
Arriving in Yangshuo at the other end was a relief. The hostel here was very good as well, with lovely English speaking staff- something we were to come to miss as our China trip continued. The area is very touristic with the classic Karst mountain peaks that rise high above the multitude of shops and “fake” Chinese buildings.
I remember seeing the famous bird fisherman of Yangshuo with his birds on a pole over his neck. Sure enough he looked absolutely the part remembered from numerable TV adverts and shows, but since he was clearly not on the river nor fishing with his birds then I couldn’t help wonder if the long grey beard was a stick-on.
In other words, this was not much of a genuine experience so far and I felt as if we were in a sort of oriental Disneyland.
Therefore, we moved on.
One of the best ways to feel that you are stepping out of the bubble or even just out of your perception of it is to go into the countryside. Our decision was to take a train into the countryside and then a bus up the epic 3200m high Chinese mountains to the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in north-western Yunnan province that had been renamed “Shangri-La”.
The bus journey was one of the scariest and most dangerous I have ever undertaken. Our little team of four took up the entire rear bed of the double decker and tried to sleep through the nightmare of high twisting bends with seemingly infinite drops on either side. The bus tore through the night, rattling like a collection of shopping trollies thrown down a staircase, and overtaking on insane bends.
All these years later that journey is etched into my mind as the worst bus journey I ever undertook, and this is a consideration by someone that took a bus from southern Laos to northern Cambodia taking over 28 hours!
Eventually we crested the mountains and came to the bowl of the “Royal” plains that is Shangri-La.
There is no real Shangri-La of course, the fictional city from the famous “Lost Horizon” novels, but the popularity of the work in the minds of tourists has led to this small area claiming the name for itself.
I didn’t object, as it was edged by high mountains and did have a number of Tibetan monasteries including what appeared from the bus window to be an enormous golden temple at the far end of the valley laying against a mountain.
The main tourist area is Zhongdian Old Town, which itself has some incredible views over the valley and the same sort of rundown tourist district found in Li Jaing.
We checked into a hostel that was all wooden pillars of Chinese design and the sort of place you would expect to find Ti Lung practicing kung fu. The owners clearly felt this was the off-season as the area was almost empty of tourists, which suited us perfectly. Our room was very nice, but I remember very clearly having to input my Passport number into an official looking government website before I could get online. Sure enough, I was very careful what sites I visited!
We all went to get some food and decide on the adventures we would undertake.
As somewhere focussed on attracting tourists there were many western style eateries, which was something we were being spoilt by and would soon come to miss. I ordered an awesome coffee and we dug out the Lonely Planet.
First on the list was a visit around Old Town looking for something genuine; a prial of streets lined with white plaster buildings and wooden hotels. It had a high mountain Wild West feel and was fun to walk around and poke in all the shops. Not that any were what I would call “genuine” at all, but I got the sense of a ski resort somewhere high up the Alps. Cesca and I headed up the nearest hill at one end of Old Town to get a good look around. The large golden monastery was opposite us, maybe 10 miles away, but it was hard to judge as the mountain air was so clear and clean that distances were all thrown off.
Behind us were the other side of the mountains that we had looked at from Shimla in India. I was very happy when I realised this. Finally, and by the most circuitous route possible, we had made it across those peaks. I still intend to do it by foot one day, and indeed go on from here go up into Tibet proper (a 7 day trek), but at that moment my sense of being a traveller and lost half way up a mountain was palpable. The great Bodhidharma made this journey into China, passing back down the path our bus had taken up to here, and thence north up towards the capital. He brought Zen Buddhism and its immediacy with him as a gift for the Emperor, a gift that the man was unthankful for – or did not understand – and Bodhidharma left for the Song Mountains to live in a cave. I wonder if he felt like I did sitting up that mountain and looking at this valley. This was not the top of the world, but it was high enough to give pause.
Shangri-La is also high enough to give you mountain sickness, the dreaded AMS, which can put you on your back for days or worse. Little did I know that the locals actually prey on the tourist’s fear of AMS by selling them “oxygen”. I thought this ridiculous when I first heard it, but events would lead to the condition coming to get one of us in the next few days…
Nearby was the local Tibetan Buddhist temple – a miniature version of the great one yonder – and after relaxing in the sun for an hour or so we took off in that direction to go get a look.
The temple is housed at one side of a stone lined square with what appeared to be an abandoned museum opposite. Intrigued, we wandered up to and around the silent museum building (the door was open) and there was nothing but abandoned exhibits about the regeneration of the area there. Clearly this place had seen better days, but its faded feel that actually made us feel a little more like explorers and less like tourists.
We went back to the temple and considered the way to the top; Tibetan temples all have enormous set of steps to climb before reaching the main hall.
As we climbed we came across some men playing mah-jong in a side room and watched them while we caught our breath.
I wondered what would be different about the temple that would make all this high altitude climbing worthwhile. I only had a faint understanding that there a lot different about Tibetan Buddhism.
The Tibetan form of Buddhism is called Vajrayana, or in English “The Diamond Vehicle”. It is tantric in structure and commonly believed to be syncretic with the previous Tibetan belief systems. That it is tantric means it has a mystical element to it that some of the other forms, especially Zen, rejects. This mystical, and therefore secret, teaching is why I didn’t know much about it. Historically there has been famous debates between the masters of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism about the merits of their respective dogmas, but over the last 1000 years they have been separated as much by understanding as geography. The important thing to remember is that in Tibet before China invaded the priests were effectively in charge of the country. That is they were its government; a religious leadership with the Dalai Lama at its head. The Dalai Lama, or should I say the current incarnation of the Dalai Lama because the Tibetans firmly believe in reincarnation, is the most recognisable religious figure in the world challenged only by the Pope. His is a government in exile hanging around in Bodhi Gaya back in India waiting for the day China lets Tibet make its own way in the world. Hell may well freeze over first. China, in a sop to the core beliefs of the people, has put in another more pro-Chinese Lama to run the religion in Tibet. They also have devised a “permission” system for Lamas to reincarnate! In order for it to be “allowed” you have to apply for a permit, which has to go before four committees setup to oversee the lives of the priests. This was a great example of how the Chinese government control things through adding bureaucracy, but that – almost comically – ignores the very spirit of the thing they are “controlling”.
The other important thing about Tibetan Buddhism is that its tantric beliefs, from the outside, look frighteningly weird. Weird enough to put Cesca off “organised” Buddhism almost entirely.
After our climb (and there is no other way to describe it) up the last steps of the temple we found some huge open doors and went inside.
A ceremony was taking place and the priests were chanting the sutras and precepts declaring their wish to save all creatures of the universe. They were all gathered around a gigantic statue of what I took to be the Buddha that sat in the centre of the space and reached high up to the ceiling. He was dressed differently enough from similar statues found in India for Cesca to ask me who he was.
“Big B, or someone like that.” I said using our slang name for the Buddha.
“What’s all that stuff on his head, he looks like a [red] Indian,” Cesca asked.
“No idea,” I admitted.
Indeed, for the outsider the Tibetan form of Buddhism, viewed up-close, looks very strange indeed. The art for example is graphic enough that I would not show it to Children. Giant multi-armed creatures are depicted in various heavenly scenes where their main activity seems to be eating people and collecting some sort of pearl like balls.
“Holy Pokémon?” I asked.
“I don’t like all the blood,” Cesca said.
Indeed there was blood, rivers of it, and heads and violent demon looking monsters. It was a horror show really.
“What’s it all mean?”
I had to admit I hadn’t a clue. I had the normal Westerner’s view of the Diamond Vehicle, in that it was the Dali Lama’s faith; that ever-smiling man beloved of all. Cesca and I had been reading his books since leaving the UK and now faced with the truth of it she was having a real conceptual clash in her mind and heart. How could this man be involved with all this? He was the leader of this faith, the head of the “Yellow Hat” clan that ran this temple. How do these images join up with his image?
“I guess its Tantric,” I offered.
“What does that mean?”
“I think,” I started, “it means that these monsters are actually Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas who the meditators are supposed to identify with. What I don’t know is why they are so fierce looking” I did not sound sure, mainly because I was not. I too was finding that my senses didn’t “like” or understand this imagery. “There’s no manual for this stuff.”
“I don’t like it,” Cesca decided.
We left the temple through a side exit, which led out onto a walkway around the side of the main hall. Off to one side we came across a giant prayer wheel with a diameter of at least 20ft. It was mounted upright on a base and surrounded by bright payer flags.
With a lot of effort I was able to get it spinning and its grinding noise echoed out over the city and towards the mountains. I wanted to find out more about this strange form of Buddhism and I knew the answers would be found at the great golden temple at the end of the valley.
After about 15 minutes of playing with the prayer wheel we left the temple and walked back towards our guesthouse.
As we approached the main square of Old Town we came across quite a sight. Lining the square was about 200 people, young and old, in modern and traditional dress and all dancing in slow-time to a local tune. It was quite charming and we joined in.
The locals were all smiling and enjoying themselves.
I wondered if there was a festival on at the time, but I later found that they did this every single night.
After a slow rotation of the square, all the while performing the strange Tai Chi like movements, we bumped into Team Galloway amongst the dancers. I watched my friends, their body language was telling me something. I whispered my observations and suspicions to Cesca and she smiled warmly at me. The revelation was not to become public until much later, but Cesca and I always find ourselves more romantic around people like us and I leaned in to give her a kiss.
Then we caught up with the others and headed for a pizza restaurant. Whatever Bodhidharma thought of this area and its people, I doubt he could have Italian food for dinner!
The plan was this: We were going to spend a day driving around the area culminating with Cesca and I heading up the golden temple. Then we were all going to take a 3-day trip to the great Tiger Leaping Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world, to walk the peaks.