Saturday, March 27

Paula and Steve: Today we made the long but beautiful drive to Gyanlthang (also called Zhongdian) which literally means "Plateau of Yaks." Zhongdian is high up on the Tibetan Plateau and we are looking forward to experiencing the Tibetan culture with plans to visit a famous monastery and several villages over the next few days.

Interestingly, the people here have proclaimed Zhongdian as the "real" Shangri-la. In James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, he describes a magical place that apparently strongly resembles Tibet. The people of Zhongdian have recently (within the past seven years) proclaimed their city to be the actual Shangri-la. Ironically, we saw the same claim being made in Lijiang!

It took us the better part of the day to make our way through the rugged mountains, including one 40 kilometer stretch that didn't really deserve to be called a road. About one hour into the trip, we had our first views of the Yangzi River. The Yangzi is the longest river in China and travels from the Tibetan Plateau through China's heartland supporting agricultural production and trade. Naxi villages lined the river as we slowly made our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

This gorge is one of the largest in the world and received its name from an ancient legend regarding tigers that leapt across it. The drive along the gorge is a bit unnerving - the road is narrow and there are no guard rails to protect you from the immediate and frighteningly steep drop down to the river (pictured here on the right). After we arrived, we found that beauty of the gorge was spoiled by the shops that line the stairs and the constant badgering by local men offering to carry us up and down (on seats suspended between long bamboo poles). Combined with the large number of tourists all fighting for positions to take pictures, this made the gorge s a somewhat underwhelming experience for us.

A local market in the nearby town (of the same name as the gorge) was much more interesting and here we saw ethnic men and women from the Bai, Black Yi and Naxi groups. The Black Yi women wear different clothing than the Yi we saw near Dali, with big black square hats (only worn by married women) and colorful skirts and jackets. We saw several of these women smoking pipes, and were told that this is very common. We found the Black Yi to be unwilling to be photographed unless they were paid. We did manage several pictures, and only once broke down and gave a woman two Yuan (she wanted five!) in return for her posing. Our guide told us that the Black Yi have a reputation of being somewhat lazy and greedy - his explanation for why we had to pay for a picture. Somewhat disturbing in the market was a whole area where people were selling dogs, primarily for food.

Back on our way to Zhongdian we asked to stop at a Black Yi village so that we could see how they live. Our guide, Lee, explained to us that the Black Yi live mostly in the mountains and their villages are often accessible only by paths wide enough for walking or donkeys. Fortunately, we passed several of the more accessible villages before reaching Zhongdian and took the opportunity to stop in one.

The Black Yi used to enslave another group called the White Yi but this was outlawed in 1949 by the Communist Party. These groups now live together peacefully. The village we visited is small with only 30 families, but this is actually larger than most. The homes are quite different than the other villages we have visited in China, reminding us in many ways of the mountain villages that we saw in Laos. The homes are simple wood or dirt walled structures without windows. An open fire in the middle of the dark homes is used for cooking and warmth. The homes contain only a few pots for cooking, some tattered clothes and a few farm tools. .

We knocked on a door and visited with a grandmother and her two small grandchildren as she was feeding them lunch. Typical of the hospitality we always seem to encounter in these situations, she asked if we were hungry and offered to feed us even though it was clear that the family doesn't have much food. There was no furniture in the home (the family sleeps and eats on the floor), and the woman actually apologized to us for not having any chairs to offer us for sitting. The Yi represent some of the poorest people in China because the soil in the areas where they live is usually very rocky and they people are forced to grow mostly potatoes and raise livestock.

We met our first zu (a cross between a yak and cow) and saw many dogs being raised for meat. The villagers also maintain several pigs and chickens, and the animals are all kept in pins made from bamboo.


We spoke with one man who told us that the government gives the Yi rice in return for planting trees and grass on the mountainsides. Our guide explained that this ethnic group used to move their entire village every three years, selecting a new area to deforest and cultivate. The government is now providing them food in return for their help in reforesting the area.

As we left, we watched several men plowing a field with their zu. We also found it interesting to see women as well as men smoking pipes and loved the colorful dress and hats worn by the women. Like the Naxi, the Yi have their own language and religion.

As we got closer to Zhongdian, we began to see Tibetan villages. These looked distinctive and actually reminded us of some the homes we had seen in villages in Southern Spain. The homes are larger than those in any of the other ethnic villages and Lee told us that the Tibetans are relatively wealthy compared to other minorities. We also saw hundreds of yak and zu grazing and large white stupas (temples for praying) throughout the countryside.

We arrived to our hotel late afternoon and as expected found the air crisp and very cool (about 45 degree Fahrenheit). After having a cup of warm tea in the lobby, we were taken to our rooms decorated in colorful Tibetan style. The kids loved the platform beds (complete with electric blankets) and burning incense.

This evening we took a short walk through Zhongdian's old city before dinner. The city is currently undergoing major construction, funded by the government. Similar to what has been accomplished in Dali and Lijiang, China is looking to create a restored city here that will attract even greater numbers of tourists. A huge gate is being constructed at the entrance to the old city. We expect that when the work is complete, Zhongdian will contain scores of shops and restaurants, and will attract the same busloads of tourists that we saw in Dali and Lijiang.

For dinner we ate at a small restaurant that's actually owned by Susan, our guide from Lijiang (that's her "American" name). We enjoyed some new foods, including a wonderful fried pork dish.

Tomorrow we are traveling to a small village called Benzilan, on the border with Tibet. There we have arranged to spend time with a Tibetan family, visit a school, and explore the village.












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