Shangri-La is a made up place written about by author James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Wait, what? It's a real place? In an attempt to boost tourism in 2001 China renamed the city of Zhongdian which apparently inspired Hilton's dreamscape, to Shangri-La. The road into town is imposed with large empty buildings and construction sites for more large empty buildings. Clearly modeled after Lijiang, Shangri-La has two main sections: an old town consisting of jittery stone streets enclosed with tacky shops, and a new town which looks like every other Chinese city: colorless buildings fading into industrialization. Like my previous mountain destinations in China (Shangri-La sits at 3,200m), warm water is commonly served. Perhaps tea is too expensive in Southwest China, but I've never been anywhere else where boiling water is served alone.
The two main tourist attractions in Shangri-La are an over-priced rebuilt monastery and a seasonal lake which wasn't in season. We went to both sites and got closer than most people do without paying, but not all the way to either destination. I began to feel sick, I suspect due to all the Tibetan yak products I was consuming. At short-last it was time for Rob and I to head in separate directions and for me to begin a long journey to Chengdu. The hard sleeper cars in Chinese trains are surprisingly comfortable and usually more interesting than taking a bus. On my 20hr train ride from Kunming to Chengdu the inhabitants of our car decided to turn the bottom level of beds in my section into the designated gambling area. I'm not sure what card game they were playing but it had a similar playing style to most card games I've observed on this trip, which is that each player seems obligated to slam his cards down in the center pile with more force and vigor than the man before him. I say man because I haven't seen a single woman playing cards apart from when I played with Thao and her friends in Vietnam.
I arrived in Chengdu around 6:30am and tried to meet up with a guy from CouchSurfing. After a frustrating 2hrs I gave up and returned to the railway station which is also where the main bus and subway lines converge. I was sitting on the entrance to the subway station when things began to shake. I've spent a decent amount of time in New York city and I'm used to things rattling when a train goes by so I thought nothing of it. The shaking increased and then everyone started running out of the railway station right in front of me. I wasn't sure what was going on but I honestly expected to see a train come flying out of the building and boom to a halt of scattered bricks directly at my feet. I've seen to many American movies. No crazy train had gone off the rails, it was just an earthquake. When the shaking was over everyone ran back into the ticket office with the same effort they had originally fled it. In two minutes time there was no sign that anything had happened.
Having given up on meeting the guy from CouchSurfing I walked to a nearby hostel. Chengdu is known for two things which happen to both be favorites of mine: spicy food and a game called wéiqí or as it's more commonly known in the United States and Japan, GO. Two of the hostel staff were playing a simplified version of the game called gomoku and when I asked if anyone knew how to play the regular game, everyone admitted that they didn't. I had searched online for where to play wéiqí in the city and even sent a few emails, but chances of me finding a game seemed slim since apparently it's played in underground locations which move from week to week. I taught some of the staff and guests how to play the proper game and everyone seemed to enjoy it. So much so in fact that when I left to go meet the guy from CouchSurfing at last, people continued to play for a good portion of the day.
The guy from CouchSurfing and I went around town and tried a few local specialties. The food was spicy but not as spicy as I was expecting. It was however, far more greasy than I was expecting. We had many good conversations covering a range of topics. He explained to me that most people play cards these days as wéiqí and mahjong take too much time and patience. After helping me buy a train ticket to my next destination, we left each other at the train station where I had originally arrived. When he had gone I hurried back to the hostel to make sure I was on time for the free dumpling party they were having.
A fun group of hostel staff and guests all made then ate several trays of dumplings. After the meal and a bit more wéiqí we decided to go out drinking. I've been so drunk that I passed out but I've never been so drunk that I blacked out. That evening was no exception but I think it's the blurriest night I have on memory. I remember being in a confusingly decorated bar and singing a Chinese version of Bad Romance and then being in an abandon hotel lobby and finally being in a private karaoke room. I remember literally rolling on the floor laughing while trying to sing a duet with a Dutch guy that had clearly never heard the song before. In short, a good time was had and we all made it back to the hostel around 6am. Or did we? As I was saying good bye the next day I asked where the Chilean guy was who had joined us that morning. I had figured he was still sleeping but the Austrian guy said he wasn't in his room. No one had seen him all day and no one remembered bringing him home. I know he was with us when we were in the private karaoke room which is where we called it a night. I'm hoping he made it back and just woke up before everyone else and went to go see some sights. I had planned to depart at 7am to go see some semi-wild pandas, but needless to say that didn't happen.
I saw most of the tourist sights in Shangri-La and was underwhelmed, and I saw few of the tourist sights in Chengdu but had a great time. Being from what I like to consider one of the safest places on earth—Madison, Wisconsin—I've never been in a real earthquake before. While people from more tectonically active places might not even notice a 6.6 to 7.1 sized rumble (reports vary on the size of the one I experienced), I thought it was very interesting. Now I'm on to climb another mountain and then perhaps see some terracotta warriors.
Have you been to the gallery in a while? It's new and improved and better than ever. All of the full sized images should load now, thanks to my younger brother letting me know there were issues. If things aren't working right on the site or you have an idea for a suggestion, please let me know. Also, if you haven't liked DangerTravels on Facebook, I suggest you do. Of course I won't know because I'm in China at the moment and forbidden to access Facebook. It'll be a fun surprise to see how many people like the page when I get to South Korea on May 10th.Soundtrack: City of New Orleans (Arlo Guthrie)