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Zhongdian is better known in the area as “Shangri-la”. A few hours up the road from Tiger Leaping Gorge we crossed a pass and suddenly the architecture and landscape changed. The Naxi stone and wood houses were replaced by large, broad-roofed whitewashed Tibetan ones. Hairy yaks, grazing on the green pastures, stared at us as we passed. Because of the recent tourist boom there are new roads and neighborhoods everywhere in Zhongdian, and many buildings, especially hotels, are built with fake Tibetan-style windows. Everyone is trying to cash in on the “Shangri-la” aspect of the place in what would normally be just another high-mountain town. A fellow traveler had recommended a guesthouse, but finding it turned out to be a challenge. After some searching, Anne found the place, located in a creaky Tibetan-style wooden house just next to the small hill with the giant golden prayer wheel in the center of the old town. The central part of the house, built in 1750, is held up by a section of a massive tree trunk. A typical house in the area is made of three high, slightly sloping walls of whitewashed adobe. There are two or three floors made of massive wooden beams. The “front” of the house is a wooden façade with balconies painted in wild, vivid colors. The whole house is covered by a broad roof that seems to float above the walls, leaving plenty of room for storage and drying.

Giant Buddha, Sungsalin Temple, Sungsalin

A short walk outside Zhongdian is Sungsalin, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside of Tibet. Despite what we know about religious oppression in China, there were many active monks and plenty of restoration work going on. Since little English was spoken, there was not much to do except poke around, listen to the chanting and spin the prayer wheels for good luck. After being separated from Anne, Eric wandered to a back room, where he received a blessing and a red thread from a head monk seated on a cushion in a small room. On the way back into town, we were approached by a badly-shaven man in orange robes, who insistently held his hand out for money. Something didn't seem quite right about his attitude and dress, so we refused. Later, we heard that there were “false monks” who beg around town for money. No doubt the gullible Chinese tourists, not knowing much about Buddhism, give them “donations”!

Prayer wheels, Sungsalin Tibetan window, Sungsalin

At 3200m, Zhongdian was high enough to wear us out from walking around town. The next few days were rainy and cold. We decided to take a trip outside of town to a small village where they make pottery. When our driver dropped us off in the wrong village, we decided to have a bowl of hot noodles. Inside the café we met Xue, a Chinese student from Vancouver who was working on a local environmental project. She introduced us to some of her friends who worked for NGOs in the area. One of them, Ma Ji, was a Chinese Muslim. That evening he took us to a great Muslim restaurant. Later, one of the other friends proposed that we visit some hot springs nearby. We piled into a jeep, and with a young, skinny monk at the wheel, we rolled off on the bumpy road into the darkness. Lun, one of the local students, explained that it was good to have a monk driver. They never had any problems with the police, which was good, because he didn't have a license! The springs were set in a small canyon. Lun told us that it had been a well-kept secret among the locals until a journalist took a picture of them bathing in the natural waters. When the photo won a prize for the best depiction of “man and nature”, the site was acquired and developed into an ugly concrete monstrosity, and now the locals can no longer afford to pay the entrance price.

Dried yak meat shop, Zhongdian Tibetan house, Zhongdian