High in the northwestern uplands of Yunnan lies a popular destination known as Shangri-La since 2001. When Bruce Connolly visited it in 1995, it was called Zhongdian. A town partly fulfilling Bruce’s Tibetan dream.
Dec. 12, 2017 --Visiting Tibet, an ambition from schooldays, felt like an “impossible dream”. Even in 1995 it remained both difficult and expensive to even reach Lhasa. Infrastructure, particularly for individual travelers, was challenging.
In '95 I was "discovering" Yunnan's Lijiang before heading to Qiaotou (Hutiaoxiazhen). A spectacular location where the small Zhongdian River flows into the Upper Yangzi or Jinshajiang (Golden Sand River). Qiaotou, gateway to magnificent Tiger Leaping Gorge, was fun. Over three days I would sit outside aptly named "Backpackers' Cafe", fascinated with passing heavy blue trucks, often with Tibetan script painted on their doors. The cafe owner pointed along the street saying "They are from Zhongdian, a mainly Tibetan area, just up the road!" A chance for me to experience a "touch of Tibet"?
Next morning I boarded a bus to "Zhong Dian". The start of a journey, at times terrifying, as we climbed out from Qiaotou along a highway perched above a fast flowing river that villagers crossed via wire ropes. The road was bumpy and in places partly washed away by recent landslides - boulders fell towards the cascading waters. My fellow passengers were fascinating to observe - a representation of probably every ethnic nationality from northwestern Yunnan. Sitting beside me a maroon-robed Buddhist monk prayed with wooden beads.
The road climbed through dense alpine forest with little human habitation before emerging onto an extensive grassy plateau. Tibetans referred to the area as Gyaitang or "Royal Plains". We were 3,200 meters above sea level with amazing visual clarity. Rows of tall wooden frames carried drying corn cobs. Grazing goats, sheep and cattle were watched over by Tibetan herders. I had reached the Tibetan part of Yunnan.
The road would continue north skirting past Sichuan before entering Tibet and on to Lhasa. My destination however was much closer. Heading past increasing numbers of villages; white chortens surrounded by prayer flags rose alongside the highway. Rounding a bend there lay Zhondian. We had arrived safely at what for me would be "Shangri-la" for several days.
Tourism had not then taken off - airport and expressway connections have since opened up the area. In 1995 accommodation was limited. I booked into the surprisingly good Tibet Hotel offering great food with a menu in English! Zhongdian was increasingly expanding with low-rise concrete buildings; my hotel bordered the older town. Sadly around half of this unique neighborhood was destroyed by fire on January 11, 2014. Flames spread rapidly due to extensive use of wood within traditional construction. In ’95 large logs from local forests were piled up for future building work, or maybe for fuel? It was interesting to watch new homes being built - side walls mainly composed of whitewashed adobe brick but facades were of highly ornate wood. Buildings were large, some with upper floor balconies. At street level space was used for storage or converted into "walk-in" shops offering a fairly limited range of simple produce such as drinks, noodles, biscuits, household supplies along with personal items such as soap and toothpaste.
For me, as I wandered around, Zhongdian was taking on the feel of a traveller’s dream, particularly around the semi-enclosed bustling central market. Hundreds of brass prayer lamps alongside circular mounds of yak butter sat on stalls along the sidewalk. Piles of unfamiliar varieties of mushrooms were there - apparently many were shipped overseas, particularly to Japan. Tibetan women wearing red or green headscarves pushed heavy black bicycles. Some carried children in back shawls.
It is important not to remember it through "rose-tinted spectacles". The town was still relatively isolated, it was just starting to open up. The older area, which was fascinating to wander through, felt like an interface between rural and semi-urban with cattle, pigs and dogs wandering around unpaved back streets. Like many older areas in China at that time, dwellings frequently had no running water. Even at the hotel I noticed my laundry being hand washed in a plastic basin. However it also felt like a place waiting to be discovered.
I could feel within me that the older area had the potential to become a "high-altitude Dali". Indeed combining Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian and much in between there was the making of excellent travel possibilities. Such towns were historically long connected. Known locally as Deqen, like other north Yunnan settlements, it was on the historic "Tea Horse Trail" where from the 6th century Pu’er tea was transported by packhorse from sub-tropical Simao up to Lhasa. Wandering around, looking at people in their heavy traditional clothes I would wonder how many could trace their ancestry back through the centuries. Older Zhongdian in '95 had the impression of a town where people never or rarely left.
The market area was a constant source of interest and photo opportunities. Just sitting watching life in all its forms could captivate me for hours. Scenes so far removed not just from more developed eastern coastal cities but also from Kunming, the provincial capital. I was fascinated with headgear - not just the colorful range of Tibetan, Yi, Naxi and Bai ladies styles but also the men with wide-brimmed almost cowboy-style - useful with the strong sun on the grasslands. One elderly man wearing a knee-length brown suede coat contentedly sat smoking a long-stem pipe. Next to him a lama from the nearby monastery appeared deep in thought. Tibetans appeared clearly in the majority around this bustling commercial area, although with so many different dialects and languages there was the continual mixture of quite incomprehensible sounds. With the number of people thronging through the tight spaces between stalls, photography was challenging, often having the camera ready to fire in the hope of successfully capturing images of this moment in time. Every corner presented reasons to stop, stare and wonder what the utensils were used for such as tall copper pots that seemed to have come from a bygone age. Were they for cooking? I had never seen the likes before. Then there were the meat cleavers simply laid out on the ground - something safety regulations back home in Scotland would forbid, yet there they were spread out in public view. I did feel Zhongdian was a safe place - indeed there certainly felt harmony amongst the various ethnic groups I met.
Food stalls were intriguing. While vegetables such as corn and potatoes were produced locally the large quantities of fresh fruits must have been trucked up from lower parts of Yunnan. Locals laughed as I tried to photo a table heaving with sheep heads - maybe what the copper cooking pots were for? Then there were the restaurant booths where cooking was through woks over wood-fired stoves.
It was the constant sense of activity. While some Bai women sat having lunch at an outdoor eatery, a Tibetan grandmother with a young boy walked past alongside other heavily garbed women chatting profusely.
So quickly I was realizing Zhongdian was a discovery where I could have spent a considerable amount of time, but that was a luxury in short supply. I knew I had to get every minute out of my remaining few days there.
Walking initially was my preferred way of discovering Zhongdian. With very few cars on the streets most people got around by bicycle, small three-wheel farm pick-up trucks or by rather dated minibuses. Larger buses occasionally headed north out of town toward centers such as Benzilan, bordering Sichuan, but in 1995 unfortunately off-limit to foreign travelers. Indeed Zhongdain had only recently been opened-up. Being relatively compact a short walk would soon lead into the surrounding countryside. A hill rising a short distance to the north was my initial destination. However I had forgotten something - altitude! With the town itself mostly flat, walking proved no problem, but going up a small hill was unexpectedly challenging. However, reaching the summit covered with prayer flags the view was of the urban core: of countless whitewashed villages set amidst an expanse of green; of a distant lake and the nearby monastery. It was obvious there lay much more to discover about my personal "Shangri-la" with Tibet oh so close but still so far from me.
It was time to hire a bicycle!
By: Bruce Connolly