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China

Zhongdian

Monks and mobiles

April 2002

This story continues from Haba-Baishuitai.

April 23

Like so many Chinese buses, ours broke down. Twice. Apparently the problem had to do with a faulty fuel line. The solution was to fill up a large plastic jug with gasoline, put it between the seats and run a hose from the jug to the engine. It worked. It also scared the crap out of us because the existence of several gallons of gasoline in the front of the bus didn't stop one soul from smoking, including the driver and his assistant sitting right next to this open container puffing away.

The bus broke down again on the outskirts of Zhongdian. A phone call from the driver and a taxi soon appeared, which the driver promptly jumped in leaving us to think the driver was going to up and run out on us. No, it was to get more gasoline and in short order we were on the road and minutes later at the Zhongdian bus station. It took nearly five and a half hours to cover the hundred or so kilometers between Baishuitai and Zhongdian. That's China.

Time for a bed and a bath. The Tibet Hotel would be our destination. Lonely Planet describes the Tibet Hotel as "hard to find so it's worth forking out Y5 on a taxi from the bus station." Hard to find? Perhaps for a blind man with vertigo. The Lonely Planet Zhongdian map accurately shows the location of the Tibet Hotel and it is very easy to find. I can't for the life of me figure out what problems they had finding the place.

A got a comfortable double for Y50, though a bath would have to wait until they turned the hot water on at night. The Tibet Hotel has slow internet access (a single computer in the restaurant, which is no great shakes as a restaurant, there are much better eating options throughout town, both local and many new establishments geared towards western tourists).

Xin Xin Computer on Changzheng Lu (the main north-south road through town) about 200 meters north of the Tibet and Camel Cafes had internet for Y3 an hour and the connections were fast. But like most local joints, you have to contend with a lot of noisy video games and chain-smoking spitting game players. A little further up the road is the China Telecom office which is a quieter more comfortable affair (heat, big chairs) but the internet was Y4 an hour and the connections were not as good.

April 24

The highlight of Zhongdian is the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, a huge Tibetan monastery. Located a few kilometers north of town it's easily reached by local bus (#3). Don't bother with a taxi.

I set out on a cold morning arriving around 10 a.m. There's a Y10 admission fee. Shut up and pay it, the place is worth twice that. I walked up the long stairs to the main courtyard where a large number of monks were hanging around, talking, eating ice cream, and playing with their mobile phones.

A band then began playing and one monk took to doing a dance around the courtyard that was to last for at least half an hour.

Music over I chatted with a few monks, departing when they started asking me for money. I guess the phone bills were due. I did later drop Y10 in one of the many collection boxes, but I don't like to give money directly to the monks. While these monks, given the prevalence of mobile phones, are obviously not very strict in their devotion, in theory, monks are not supposed to have cash. It's a vow of poverty. Cash goes go to the temple.

I wandered around the place finding several smaller temples within the complex where monks were at prayer. At one, there was a single senior monk reading and chanting Buddhist scripture. Having a digital camera in hand he was eager to see the pictures, all the while chanting away as I flipped through the images for him.

I spent the remainder of the day hanging around Zhongdian, noticing the explosion of large hotels geared towards the domestic tourism market along with many cafes geared towards western budget travelers. Yunnan is clearly in the forefront of budget travel in China, and the circuit has now grown to Dali-Lijiang-Tiger Leaping Gorge-Zhongdian.

My next plan was to travel to Deqin, the town located in the far northwest corner of Yunnan, a single mountain range away from Tibet, and home to the sacred 6740-meter peak Kawa Karpo. I could always hop a local bus for the seven or so hour journey but there are many sights worth seeing on the road from Zhongdian to Deqin that the buses of course, won't stop for.

I met up with a young guy from France who had the same idea I had so we agreed to hire a car, but given the costs, we really needed to find two more people.

April 25

Another chilly day, I spent part of the morning walking around the old village which is the area just south of the Tibet Hotel. After lunch I explored the numerous shopping options available in Zhongdian, ostensibly to buy a pair of gloves because it was pretty darn cold and Deqin, if I ever got there, would probably be a whole lot colder.

Late afternoon luck brought us a Swiss couple also keen to head to Deqin and back so we had our group.

April 26

We left about an hour later than we wanted as our driver wasn't ready. But still, 8 a.m. was early enough. Our first stop was to what is a shallow lake in the summer but this time of year was a dried up field where several local woman were grazing their livestock.

The first half of the trip included your expected assortment of mountains, valleys, and villages. A picture says a thousand words, so have a look.

Lunch in Benzilan including one of my personal favorites, dried yak.

Story continues in Deqin.

I returned to Zhongdian, and headed straight to the bus station where I interrupted two young women playing solitaire on the computer and requested they sell me a bus ticket for Lijiang for the following morning. Giggling, they obliged before returning to their computer game.

April 28

The morning bus ride was a scenic one with beautiful weather to match. Spectacular views of Haba Peak and then Jade Dragon Mountain would figure prominently all the way to Lijiang. Near Qiaotou a man boarded with an open bucket of live fish which splashed a few passengers who displayed their annoyance by pushing his bucket around the bus. No sooner would one passenger push the thing out of the way that a new passenger would be splashed and the bucket would be moved again. Fortunately the man's destination came quickly as I do believe had he and his fish stayed on the bus much longer the bucket would be upside down on his head, his fish flapping around on the floor.

I stayed in Lijiang just long enough to pick up my bag from the First Bend Inn and grab some lunch. While in the bus station I discovered what is possibly the best use ever for a Lonely Planet guidebook. I'm standing in line to buy another bus ticket, this time for Xiaguan (I would skip the backpacker hangout of Dali, I had been there in 1999 and saw no reason to go back, having found the place thoroughly overrated), I'm holding the book in my hand in case it's necessary to point to the Chinese characters for Xiaguan. Just as it's about to be my turn to approach the counter, some guy tries to cut the line and jump in front of me. Thwack! I put my arm out and thumped him in the chest with the LP guidebook and took my proper place at the window. Thank you, LP, I always knew there'd be something useful about your books.

I would spend one night in Xiaguan, see the Dali-Xiaguan section for a long write-up of my 1999 visit to the backpacker town of Dali, and a short description of my one night in Xiaguan in 2002, before heading on to Baoshan and ultimately to Tengchong to see the volcanoes, hot springs, etc.

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Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian

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