Getting Our Bus Tickets To Zhongdian Was A Challenge
In Lijiang we were told to go to a place called Mama Naxi’s. She runs a guesthouse and is supposed to speak English very well. She can easily set you up with bus tickets or any other travel plans. We walked almost the entire city looking for this place. Many people had never heard of it or had no idea where it was. We ran into many other travelers who could not find it either.
We eventually gave up on finding this guesthouse. The next day we packed up our bags and decided to take our chances by just going to the bus station. According to our guidebook there were supposed to be 11 buses a day from Lijiang to Zhongdian, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to get on one of them. The ladies at the counter spoke very minimal English. We could only get one time out of the lady. We came across a young guy who could speak English and Chinese. He tried to get more information for us. Then we got 3 bus times from her. They were all at strange times and either had us getting up really early or arriving very late at night in Zhongdian. Another attempt was made for us by a traveler who spoke Chinese. She got a few more times that were all different from the previous ones we got. There ended up being a bus that left in half an hour, so we bought the tickets for it.
As we waited we had to laugh at all the men smoking in the bus station. There was a huge no smoking sign on the wall. One guy was sitting right under it and lit up. I had to go to the bathroom here, it had to be one of the most disgusting yet. I will not even go into details it was so bad, you can let your imagination run wild.
Just When I Thought The Washrooms Couldn’t Get Any Worse
During the bus ride I had to go to the washroom again. When we finally stopped I managed to find a bathroom.It would be my first experience of having to use what can be described in no other way than a bathroom trough. A long trough goes from one side of the ladies room to the other then through a hole in the wall into the mens room across it and out through a hole in the wall to the exterior of the building. The whole thing is on a downward incline with a tap at the high end. It has water running to try and keep things flowing. You do what ever business you have in the trough. The water flow is not heavy enough so stuff is sitting all throughout the trough. It was a horrible experience both visually and smell wise.
We See Tibetan Houses And People For The First Time
The bus ride was four hours and would take us to an elevation of 3200 meters. Unfortunately this was one of the bus rides we would have to endure constant cigarette smoking on. To make matters worse we couldn’t get our window to open. The ride went along the very slow moving and brown Yangtze river. We took a turn at Tiger Leaping Gorge and saw another river flowing into the Yangtze. This river was really strong and wild. We passed by two different dams on this river as well as a mine and many spots where there were large areas of gravel washing into the river.
We started to climb quickly in the last hour of the bus ride. We could see the river way down below us. The air got noticeably cooler. We could see alpine meadows in every direction for miles. It was a beautiful site. We soon got to a large open plateau where we got to see Tibetan style houses dotted along the grass. We looked to one side of the bus and about 100 yards across the plain were a line of about 10 people walking. The people were dressed in bright coloured clothing and hats, and had other accents of colour on their clothing like pink, yellow, red and green. It was the first Tibetan people we got to see, it was so amazing. We saw many stupas along the way, all with lines of prayer flags strung from them. We passed by two very large monasteries.
Getting Our Bearings In Zhongdian And Finding Accommodation
We arrived at the bus station in Zhongdian, we had no idea where we were on our map of the town. A few ladies approached us when we got off the bus, but were not overly pushy. The kept showing us pictures of guest houses. They kept talking in their language as if they thought we would be able to understand them. I went into the bus station and was pleasantly surprised that the lady at the ticket booth spoke a bit of English. I asked her to show me where the bus station was on the map. It was in the complete opposite end of town than where the map stated it was. She told me that was the location of the old bus station.
I showed her where I wanted to go on the map. I asked if we could get a taxi there. She pointed right across the street and said take bus number 1, it’s 1 yuan per person. Luck would have it that the bus was sitting right there and we got on. I must say it was the dirtiest bus we have seen. We had heard stories of buses where people spit on the center aisle. We hadn’t experienced it yet. This would be the first one. The aisle looked like it had spots of slime on it. There was mushed food in spots too.
We saw the place we wanted to get off and waved at the bus driver to stop. As soon as we got off the bus it was apparent we were somewhere very different than the other parts of China we had been in. A tractor with a large wagon on the back of it had just dropped off a group of ladies. They were all wearing bright pink scarves on their heads and white aprons trimmed with bright blue. It was interesting to see that some of them had this traditional clothing mixed with modern jean jackets and pants. We found accommodation at the Tibetan Cafe Inn. The price for our double with bathroom was 100 yuan a night. ($14 Canadian) It is clean and the bathroom is quite modern. It also gives the guest free internet use. The staff seem quite pleasant.
We both needed to just decompress from the bus ride for a bit before heading out to eat. We were surprised to be in a colder environment for the first time. We have been acclimatized to heat for the last 7 months. It was refreshing to have cool air for a change. The air was so fresh and it seemed like there was no pollution here unlike a lot of the other places we had been to in China. It wasn’t long before the initial pleasantness of the cool air wore off. Now we were starting to feel the cold. No worries though, our beds are equipped with full size heating pads. There are about 4 different blankets on the beds and 4 extra comforters provided in the room. It must get really cold here in the winter. I guess at well over 10,000 feet it would. Each of us turned our heating pads on and it was not too long before we were having a nice little nap. Half an hour later and we felt refreshed and ready to go eat.
Food Is Hit And Miss
We decided to go across the street to Noah’s cafe. There were a large number of foreigners that we could see through the window. We had some good food, fried rice with potatoes and stir fried vegetables. As well as a quesidilla with tofu, refried beans, cheese and salsa. For dessert we had some Indian tea and brownies.
Jack was in his glory, they were playing some really old Beatles music in the cafe. It has been ages since we heard any kind of music that we normally listen to at home. You don’t realize how much you miss stuff like that until you are exposed to it again. When that CD ended they put on U2, that almost brought tears to our eyes! It was so good to hear. The music was interrupted when two local men came in. One guy had a traditional instrument with strings. They both started to sing. It was interesting to hear, but they were a little annoying as they would come right up to each table. It was quite loud. Then little kids started to come in and beg at the tables. One little boy was snorting like a pig, we are not quite sure why he was doing this. He kept going around to tables and pointing at peoples food and making motions to give it to him. Everyone tried to ignore him and knew not to encourage his behavior.
We chatted with a group of travelers at a table near us. We feel so lazy when we hear about some other peoples travels. One group has been cycling through China for the last 2 months. Now two of them are flying with their bikes to Lhasa and will continue to cycle all the way from there on the route to Nepal and onward until they reach Delhi in India. The other guy is not even flying to Lhasa, he will bike the whole distance by himself through the mountains.
We were warned about the food in this area and northwards from here. It varies from mediocre to awful, to inedible. We had an experience at one place where 3 mistakes were made on our order. First we got fried eggs when we ordered scrambled, the girl even repeated the order back to us, so I don’t know how it got messed up. Then I got green tea instead of Indian tea. They forgot Jack’s tea altogether. When we said we had ordered scrambled eggs, not fried, the girl just looked at us strangely and said scrambled and just walked away. She didn’t do anything. We called her back a few minutes later and said can you please take these away, we did not order them, we ordered scrambled eggs. We would have eaten the fried ones had the yolks been even slightly cooked. The same eggs came back to us, they had just been thrown back on the grill and cut up a bit. It was not very appetizing. The toast had a very funky taste to it and the muesli and fruit had a burnt sesame seed flavor.
We both left the restaurant very hungry still as we didn’t eat much of our meal. We decided to give the restaurant at our guest house a try. After talking to another set of travelers and comparing food horror stories. We all came to the conclusion it is the oil they fry stuff in that makes it all have an awful taste. They do not change their oil and use it over and over for who knows how long. We asked if they had tried the french toast here. They said no, but they had ordered french fries and they were very light in colour, but unfortunately totally undercooked so not edible. The fact that they were light in colour was good though, it meant the oil was fresher. So we thought okay, maybe the french toast will be alright. Boy were we wrong. We have had to keep a fairly open mind in the last 7 months while traveling as far as food goes, but this french toast had to be the most awful thing we have ever put in our mouths. We both tried one bite and couldn’t even swallow it, we had to spit it out. I don’t know what they cooked this in, but it was disgusting. We could see some kind of dark thick yellow oil dripping off of it. They use tons of Yak cheese and butter here, so maybe it was some kind of Yak oil. Breakfast number two down the drain! We decided to give up eating for the beginning part of our day anyways. Apparently the food only gets worse as we travel to more remote places, a pretty scary thought.
Exploring The Town
We spent some time wandering around the old town of Zhongdian, or what is left of it. The Chinese are ripping it down and putting up the horrible looking box style buildings with shops for the bus loads of Chinese tourists when they come. What is left of the old town is very charming.
We came across a giant prayer wheel on a steep hilltop. It had to have been over 50 feet tall. It had a bar going around near the base of it for turning the wheel. It is to be turned in a clockwise motion only. Jack and I grabbed a hold of the bar and we could barely get it to move, we soon had a few kids try and help us. I think most of them were hanging off of it and making it more difficult if anything.
We kept walking out past the main tourist area and out into the rural area of the town. We passed by barns and houses done up in the colourful Tibetan style. Some homes had very elaborate gates that were the entrance to a courtyard in front of the property. A lot of homes had items hanging from them to dry. We saw some form of peppers as well as pig heads and large strips of pork hide. Groups of women were sitting on doorsteps passing the time. Some would look up and smile as we went by, others paid no attention to us at all.
We noticed that the kids are quite different from the other places we have been to in China. They have a real tough look and attitude about them. The older ones seem to hang out in gangs around the street and quite late at night too. We have been warned to be careful here for bag slashing at the bus depots and similar public areas. I don’t know if it is like this because the people are poorer here. Or maybe because it is so much more remote than the places we have been to and the kids have nothing else to do.
Dancing Brings The Community Together
There is a main square in the old town section of Zhongdian. Every evening the town people gather to dance. It was quite amazing to watch. We guessed there were somewhere between 800 and 1000 people dancing in the square. Many others were gathered around watching. Music was played and each song had a different set of dance moves to it. Everyone moved in unison. The crowd was a mixture of men and women, both young and old. Many people here still wear the traditional Tibetan clothing so the crowd was full of ladies in bright coloured scarves in their hair as well as decorated aprons and dresses. They danced in a huge circle many people deep, it encompassed the whole square. You could feel the great sense of community spirit. More places in the world should do things like this. What a great way to connect with the people in your community and get great exercise at the same time.
Some Concerns Accessing Money Here
We have not had too many problems on our entire trip accessing money. We did start to get a bit worried here. There are a few banks in town and some have bank machines. The first day we tried to get some money, we found out one of the banks that dealt with foreigners closed at 3pm, it was 3:30pm, so we had just missed it. Then we hit the other banks. Every ATM machine in the town was out of order. One bank that was open said they do not deal with foreign exchange. The next day was not looking much better. The ATM’s were all still out of order. All 3 branches that were supposed to deal with foreign exchange were mysteriously closed again. Finally Jack went into the Construction Bank of China and thank goodness they were able to give us some money on our credit card. We have to laugh at some of the bank names here, Construction Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and so on.
The weather is very unpredictable here. The mornings are usually dry, but each afternoon we have experienced some rain. Sometimes sitting at a restaurant we will see a torrential downpour and then by the time we leave the sun is out and everything is dry, as if it never happened. We will go for a walk and then it will start pouring to the point where the ponchos and umbrellas are not even going to save us. So we will retreat back to our hotel room. Within half an hour the sun is shining again.
Our bodies are almost going into shock. The first day we got here, we could not believe our eyes. We could see our breath. The last time that happened to us was at the end of February when we were back in London for a brief two days. After 7 months of heat we had to break down and put on a jacket and socks and shoes, how horrid! We compare the temperature and weather to be like that of early October back home. If it is like this here in July, we don’t even want to think about what it is like in the winter. We will have to buy some fuzzy pullovers for the rest of our time here and our further travels. At least they are super cheap to buy.
Feeling The Effects Of The Altitude
We are definitely feeling the effects of the high altitude. We are drinking the recommended 3 liters of water each per day. It just seems to disappear in us. The increase in our pulse and breathing just walking now is quite noticeable. Jack woke up quite a few times in the night feeling like he wasn’t getting enough air. When you start to get higher you can actually wake up gasping. Going up stairs or doing anything slightly strenuous just about knocks us out. It will get better as we adjust, hopefully.
Ganden Sumtseling Gompa Monastery
One of the main attractions in Zhongdian is the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa Monastery. We took the local bus to get to the monastery, it cost 1 yuan, about 15 cents Canadian. It is a 300 year old Tibetan monastery housing 600 monks. It is one of the most important monasteries in southwest China. There is a steep set of stairs that take you up to the top of the hill where the monastery is situated. We admired the buildings from the outside. We couldn’t get over their massive size.
We continued on a trail to the left of the main building. We came across a large stupa and an area covered in prayer flags. A very old man was walking circles around the stupa in a clockwise direction. Near the stupa were strings of prayer flags. There were thousands of them flapping around in the wind. Jack took the opportunity to get under them to take a picture. You get a good view of the farmland and surrounding mountains from this area. Far in the distance we could see a white stupa with prayer flags high up on top of a mountain.
There were many trails that wove through the different buildings around on the monastery grounds. It was interesting to see how the monks live. It was our first time seeing the traditional Tibetan colours and decorating that is used on their buildings.
We continued to the backside of the monastery buildings and came across several monks. Some were packing bags of rice into the monasteries, others were doing outside work.
We looked through the buildings that we were permitted to, some had signs saying no entry. One had a sign saying only men could enter. In one room we came across a few monks that were taking a substance out of a sack and grinding in a rock mortar with a large wooden pole. It looked like clippings from a cedar type tree. We assumed it was something to burn. We also saw the main kitchen area, it was very basic and primitive set up. Then we entered the main assembly hall. It had dozens of low benches and a huge alter area decorated with many gold Buddhas and other religious figures.
There were many young boys at the monastery. Even though they were training to become monks, you could still sense they had that typical teenage boy attitude.
Next stop Tibet!