Shangri-La experience: Heavenly Hotels (1)
Does the name ‘Shangri-La’ ring a bell? A chain of classy and exclusive hotels, sure. And they are popping up in every self-respecting city around the world. Correct. But here in China, more then anything else, Shangri-La is a widely desired name of the town and lamasery that was the setting for James Hilton’s book ‘Lost Horizon’. The true heaven on earth in a rustic, harmonious valley of peace: Shangri-La. And who doesn’t want to live in a heavenly city? Can you imagine the economical gain this would give? Streets of gold! So, not surprisingly, there’s not just one Shangri-La in China; towns are literally tumbling over one another to prove their authenticity and change their century-old names in to, yes, Shangri-La.
I still remember my first visit to Shangri-La quite some years ago. Yes, I found my Shangri-La; the real one, if you ask them. But it isn’t so much the special destination that I most remember; it is the journey that got me there. It was winter. A very cold winter. The bus ride from Lijiang, an old town deep in remote west Yunnan, took the whole day.
A bus ride to heaven; a trip through hell. As it is written: heaven is reached only by a narrow road. And, as I soon discovered, by steep climbing roads. And wild winding roads. Narrow valleys far below and falling rocks from far above. An old bus with direct view on the road underneath through its rotten floor. Several stops were needed to re-secure the loads of bags and boxes and goats piled on its roof. An overcrowded bus with only Tibetan men. Fierce looking men. Rough and smelly. Men in over-sized coats with sleeves twice as long as their arms and knives even longer. Cowboy hats nonchalant on their thick dirty black hair that hung long over their shoulders. Their sunburned, leathery skin black and scarred. I traveled with wife and kids and for some reason we didn’t blend in well. As it was, we quickly became quite an attraction. They stared at us with curious and burning eyes and threw comments up and down the aisle causing laughs among the gang. Very funny. All armed with beer and smoking at least 2 cigarettes at the same time. The next cigarette waiting behind one ear, a beer bottle behind the other. A big ‘no smoking’ sign right above the driver was reminding us all of the good intentions of some far-away-never-present official. Must be a Han. But the sign was hard to see through the smog of smoke produced by the driver. Then what can you say?
My family was sitting in the back row, flying up from their hard seats each time the bus hit a rock or dived into a hole. Windows and door in the front were all open, letting in biting cold air that blew the smoke to the back of the bus where the windows could not be opened, choking my by now purple looking frozen kids and making my wife vomit. Changing seats was the only option. But none were available. The men were still laughing. A car passed. A black VW. A German Volkswagen. A sign of Europe and civilization. For a moment I felt relief; I was not alone in this God-forsaken land after all. If there’s a western car, there must be a western salesman somewhere. A companion. But it didn’t last. An unsolicited thought reminded me of a highlighted note in the Lonely Planet guidebook warning us for robbers and murderers in this area. Their knives seemed to grow by the minute.
But I needed seats. I mustered all the courage left in me – and believe me, not much was left: I’d much rather just jumped of the bus deep down the cliff- so, with that much courage I rehearsed silently what to say and how to say it in Chinese. I asked two men in a front row to give up their seats for my family members and pointed to the back seats for them. Their stares seemed to dissect me. Seconds past and nothing happened. It seemed hours. Mumbling behind me. They looked at each other. They looked at me. Then they looked away. Someone started cutting his nails with his dagger. More mumbling and shuffling behind me. A cough. Why can we not just disappear now? How fun, these holidays and trips! Who’s idea was this?? I vowed never to use public transport again, ever. I tried again, this time not asking them but already thanking them for giving up their seats. Why troubling them with a choice if, really, there wasn’t any. And again I pointed to the back seats and my suffering family. It was a lucky shot. But what had I to loose? I wasn’t even sure they understood Chinese, let alone my Chinese. Another smile, but then the man by the window started to move. I could hardly believe it, but he stood up -slowly as not to loose face too much- and went to the back saying something abracadabra Tibetan to his friend. The friend just stared at me. Not my friend. But, alas, one gone, only one more to go.
It boosted my confidence. Once again I thanked him ahead and this time I simply stared back. Then he too got up and moved, with groaning. Victory! I could do the dance and give the yell: Shangri-La, here we come! Instead I only smiled an unseen smile and motioned my family over. Suddenly it didn’t feel that cold anymore. Now, the bumps in the road weren’t that high and the kids could breath again. We saw a rainbow in the valley far below us where the Yangtze river made its first sharp turn before heading off into the Tiger Leaping Gorge. My action had changed the atmosphere in the bus. Tibetan abracadabra became an interesting linguistic puzzle; stares became smiles; or did I just imagined this? We continued to climb and it started to snow. I was offered a beer that I politely declined and before I knew it we arrived in a snow covered Shangri-La.
We selected an upgraded, more expensive hotel, convincing ourselves that we earned it. A 3-star hotel. Of course we deserved more than that after a day like this, but then, how much can you get for just a few yuan? Luckily, our 3-star hotel in Shangri-La had a room left. In fact, all rooms were still available. A cleaner quickly chased a goat out of the main hall and dog poop welcomed us in the hallway to our ‘suite’. Mind your steps!
No heating. Frozen beds. It took half an hour for the staff to wake up and another half hour to switch on the electricity. Now we could boil water. We dipped our feet in buckets with hot water but didn’t dare to warm ourselves by showering the rest of the night, afraid that water would freeze on us faster than we could wipe it off. We dreaded the nights but day time was miraculous.
A thick pack of fresh white snow on the gentle hills under a deep blue sky greeted us the next morning. Chicken and cows and pigs and donkeys were lazily moving around in the narrow snow muddied streets that formed a labyrinth between the wooden and mud houses and giving us a look as if they owned the place (that was Orwell’s idea). We chatted with 3 elderly who were trying hard to get a giant 24-meter high golden prayer wheel turning. It stood high on the hill, towering over the village. The wheel didn’t turn, so they did: walking around it again and again. We laid down in the snow and enjoyed the strong Tibetan winter sun. A small teahouse on the snowy dirt road opposite the hotel became our evening refuge against the cold. At least they had a coal pot in the center of the room. No chimney. The thick smoke made breathing laborious and finding your teacup a treasure hunt, but at least it was warm. The coal was kept alive and glowing by an aged and wrinkled old Tibetan lady. A prayer wheel in her hand kept turning regardless what she was doing, sending out her prayers to be picked up by the spirits of the wind. Prayers we surely needed for the remaining nights in our Shangri-La hotel.
Maybe, one day, we’ll stay in the real Shangri-La…