I arrived in Shangrila 8PM, after a two hour bus ride from Qiaotou. I was asleep in the bus and woke up seeing white everywhere. Yes, it was snowing. It was surreal because, 2 hours ago, I was in lush fields. Now, all I could see was a spectacular view of mountains and valleys blanketed with fresh snow.
I got off the bus and tried calling my hotel. Unfortunately, there was no answer. The Israeli guy I was with suddenly vanished, so I was standing outside by the road somewhere in town, with an umbrella on hand to shield the falling snow. I was worried, since everyone was hailing taxis and there were a few. My hotel didn't answer. My alternative was to go to the Old Town and find a hostel there. Suddenly, the Israeli guy showed up, looking sick. He told me he vomited, probably from something he ate. He looked really sick, and so we decided to catch a taxi and headed straight for Old Town.
Our taxi dropped us off at the entrance of Old Town. Fortunately, we immediately saw the sign, Hosteling International. We went inside and booked a room for the two of us to share. The Israeli guy went to bed while I had some dinner. The hostel turned out to be full of character. The restaurant was called the Traveller's Pub, which was listed on Lonely Planet. It was cozy, and had the feel of a Tibetan cottage. After dinner, I retired to bed, feeling cold as there was again only an electric blanket.
I woke up the next morning and it was still snowing. After having breakfast and taking a much needed bath, I decided to go around Old Town. Unfortunately, the shops were still closed. I bought a pair of gloves because my hands were already feeling numb. Then, the snow stopped, and just like that, the sun shone. There were some Chinese tourists playing with the snow. I was beginning to feel skeptical about Shangrila. It wasn't the place I thought it would be. And I still couldn't contact the hotel I was supposed to stay in. So I had a dilemma of whether to stay for another night, or just go back to Lijiang. So, I folded my umbrella and went back to my hostel.
Back in the hostel, I tried to research for places to go. But the Internet was down. For some weird reason, I really didn't know much about Shangrila. I just wanted to get there, but didn't know what to do when I was there. I asked about going to Tibet. An American told me that permits were suspended at that time, because of the Tibetan New Year, which caused some security concerns. So, I went to the receptionist to ask for some tips. Unfortunately again, the receptionist didn't speak English. The one who could took the day off. So, I decided to pack my things and check out, in the hopes of finding an adventure.
Shangrila is the new name of the Chinese town Zhongdian. The Chinese government renamed the place as such in hopes of spurring up tourism. Shangrila is at the outskirts of the Himalayas and Tibet, and has the largest buddhist monastery outside Tibet. So, for those who can't make it to Tibet, Shangrila is an exceptional alternative. I knew the name of the monastery, the Songzanlin Monastery. Fortunately, at the back of the business card of the hostel, there was a map with the monastery on it. So I took a taxi and pointed to it on the map. After 10 minutes, I arrived at the view which every Shangrila postcard had.
The Songzanlin Monastery sat atop a hill. It was a surreal sight. There were a lot of huge crows (or black birds) hovering above the monastery. I was awed at the architecture of the place, it really felt like I was in Tibet. The surrounding area composed of a lake and an old town. I walked around before entering the monastery. Surprisingly, I found the hotel that I was supposed to stay in, the Songstam Hotel. It was closed for renovation. That explained the no answer. There was a number posted on its gate, for another hotel, the Songstam Retreat, which as I remember was located somewhere in the mountains. I jotted the number down just in case.
I approached the entrance of the monastery, which had a small town inside. There was a yak ready to take pictures with you for a fee.
Some children also came rushing to me, instructing me in sign language to take their picture. I knew they were going to ask for money, so I gave them before they even asked. The kids were cute anyway, and they were so persistent.
I passed through the gates, and was immediately transported to a different world. Now I felt I was in Shangrila. It started to snow again which made the landscape more otherworldly. There was a straight path up to the monastery, but I found myself through the side streets, exploring.
There were monks around, walking briskly. I arrived in a small prayer area I think, where a monk went behind a curtain. I realized that they were praying. Suddenly, a monk came up to me and gave me a buddha bead bracelet. He spoke to me in Chinese, but I responded in English. He then shifted his language and conversed in English. He asked me to kneel beside him, and then started to utter some words. I figured he was praying for me. He looked up to me and smiled. I got up and I asked for more buddha bracelets for my friends. He gladly gave me 6, after counting.
I moved on to the top, and witnessed the monastery. It was a grand quadrilateral structure. I went inside, but there was another huge door that was locked. So, I moved out and explored the surrounding buildings.
I appreciated Tibetan architecture. I loved the simplicity of their designs. They were ornate at some points, but the facade of their buildings were plain. It was really a design inspiration for me.
It took me some time to absorb the entire place, which really wasn't that big. After an hour of exploring, I decided to go down, since the snow was also falling harder.
This was the view on top, with the monastery behind me. At that point, a realization dawned upon me. I was satisfied with my entire trek of China and that I had made it to Shangrila. I was happy I didn't have concrete plans. I was happy I took on the challenge and had the adventure of my life. I was on top of the monastery, with snow gently falling on my face. I was in Shangrila.
I smiled and descended. After walking in thick snow on the banks of the lake, I decided to go back to Lijiang in the afternoon.
PS. I also had the worst feeling of my trip. Because of the cold, the battery in my camera was consumed faster, and so I lost batt while I was in the bus that passed by one of the best country landscapes I have seen. Imagine, black yaks grazing on snow covered fields, with a backdrop of frozen rivers and stately mountains, all against a blue and silver sky. And what made it worse, there were two Chinese photographers at my back, clicking away in a frenzy by the bus window. It was complete torture. Lesson learned: EXTRA BATT.