On the bus ride North out of Lijiang, we finally got a taste of what we came for and broke out in to the wild. Somewhere along the drive up into the hills, as we climbed towards the gateway to Tibet, is where we first felt free.
The small Tibetan city of Zhongdian, also referred to as Shangrili-La, was our immediate destination. For the first time in our lives, we were to experience the deep freedom of emptiness that is the Tibetan vibration. The city is home to a thriving Monastery and a very hip travelling scene, as well as a small airport with an allegedly ROWDY mountain approach. This was the first place on our trip that held appeal to stay and live for some time, rather than just witness as a tourist spectacle and move on.
Many of the Chinese travellers who come up this far are passionate about hiking and adventuring in the outdoors, and the only magazines to be found at our hostel were Chinese hiking, backpacking, and trail running glossies. We spent our time biking to the temple, cruising the streets of the old town, and hiking the surrounding hillsides. On a particularly memorable evening we hiked to a Stupa on the hill above town, where the sunset sky danced for us in vertical streaks behind a tent of prayer flags.
At this point we had a big decision to make: should we turn around and head South back to Kunming and take a train to Chengdu? Or should we take the back road to Chengdu over the mountain passes to the North? The info that was available to us was all quite vague on the details of the back road journey. We only gathered that it was possible, and spectacular, but that one needed to expect long delays and a high degree of mis-comfort.
We got in touch with Travis Winn, an American kayaking contact, who has been traveling, living, and guiding in Western China for many years. When asked about the back-road, he spoke of it as if there were no other way and lined us out with a stack of options and information. Thanks Travis, you definitely pointed us the right way! Thus began one of the most interesting parts of our Journey.