Last time you heard from us, we were in Sichuan. We spent two weeks in Emeishan, waiting for Mariette’s foot to heal while visiting the holy mountain and the giant Buddha of Leshan. But now it’s time to hit the road again. Or, to be more precise, the rail! We are very far from the Mekong river now, and the most economical way to find it again is to do a large detour by train through Kunming, the capital of Yunnan in Southwest China, then head north again nearly to the border of Tibet. Let’s go for a three-days trip : 27hrs of train, 12 hrs of wait and 5 hrs of bus!
Famous utopian city invented by author James Hilton for his novel Lost Horizon (1933), Shangri-La exists nonetheless for real here in China. In 2001, the Chinese government cleverly gave that pretty name to a small town of northern tibetan Yunnan, thinking it would attract more tourists in this remote area. It all worked out pretty well, but sadly this town has nothing in common with James Hilton’s idyllic city… Like many other Chinese cities, it isn’t what you would call a charming town. Except for its main attraction: the old town. Circling a small hill on which sits a beautiful temple displaying the biggest prayer mill in the world, the old center is a labyrinth of lovely little wooden houses, delightfully carved.
Unfortunately in 2014 a massive fire destroyed most of the ancient houses (around 400!). So people are currently rebuilding a brand new « old » centre. Builders and craftsmen are working noisily together in clouds of sawdust to give back their past glory to the little streets.
Shangri-La is also an excellent base from where a lot of tourists decide to explore the beautiful mountain area. Locals understood it well : hotels, outdoor and trinket shops are everywhere. Now, you may wonder: why did we choose to stop in such a city?
Because Constantin lives here! French explorer/writer/businessman, he lives in the area since a very long time. He just opened a new charming restaurant called the Flying Tigers Café, and we really hope to meet him there to ask for his precious advice. We need to know how the road looks like along the Mekong river, and if there are enough villages for us to travel on foot. Our electronic map of the area is definitely not precise enough to tell us if we will find enough food and water along the way. We will meet also Guillaume, Frank and Estelle (all the french expatriates) and will spend a very nice evening with them!
Cizhong, in the heart of the Mekong valley.
We start walking our way down from ugly Deqin, 5hrs away from Shangri-La by bus. Thirty kilometers further south we finally meet the Mekong again! First time we see it since our trip to the source Zaxiqiwa, a few weeks ago. Here, the brown river is flowing washing-machine-like
Two days and a half. That is the time we needed to reach Cizhong by foot. Not to bad for a start! We are willing to stop there for two reasons.
First: its History. Around 1850, missionaries from the Missions Etrangères de Paris were sent to Forbidden Tibet. They encountered closed frontiers and violent buddhist lamas protecting their precious « kingdom ». They decided to settle down a bit before, in this dangerous valley full of brigands and outlaws. They evangelized many villages and built a few chapels and churches. The biggest one was Cizhong’s. Later joined by swiss missionaries who taught them their knowledge of farming on mountainous land, they developed the area and particularly their wineries! Tracked by chinese government, eight of them were murdered during their stay, by jealous lamas or brigands. During the cultural revolution, the last priests were banned from China definitely, but the population has kept its faith until today and still cultivate grapes!
Second: Two french are apparently making wine around here, they just started a new ambitious wine project. They are hoping to make the best wine of Asia, a « grand cru » that will be classified amongst the best bottles of the world. One is a very talented oenologist and wine maker, but even so this project is quite challenging: they are starting from nothing! They have no machines or any of the modern technology to help them. Everything is hand made! We would love to meet them, but we have a wee problem… We don’t know exactly where to find them!
The first thing we do when we get to Cizhong is to go to the church. We hope that the priest will be able to tell us where to find our two men. The church is wonderful. But unfortunately, the Chinese priest is not as nice. Brand new smartphone in hand and wearing a shiny gold Rolex watch, he gives us the less sympathetic welcoming we ever get in China! He doesn’t like french people at all, refuses to give us any information and finally throws us outside without explanation. Rude! If he has a reason to be so hateful, we will never know it.
Asking and asking around, we finally learn that our two wine makers are living a few kilometers away in a small mountain village. We will lost ourselves many times before we find their place. One time for example, we ask a farmer in our best Chinese:
- « We search two French make wine »
He guides us to a narrow path climbing up a thick pine forest. Not easy to walk in there with our big backpacks. « Probably a shortcut », Quentin says… Or not! We finally arrive in the middle of a secret cemetery, where we discover the tombs of two of the french missionaries who died in 1905… Thanks to the old farmer, we would never have found this place alone. But next time we won’t forget to ask for two french guys ALIVE!
The wine of Cizhong, « terroir » of the Mekong.
We finally find Celia’s little farm where our two friends live. We will spend five amazing days there, between running chicken and pink funny pigs. We will learn a lot about local History and wine making, listening to the frenchies, who are really passionate and interesting people. During this time, Quentin falls in deep love with Paulina, a beautiful tibetan woman. She is amazing. Everything in her is mesmerizing: her hairdo with an artfully set pink turban, her clever shining eyes, and her good humor. She smokes from a long pipe and drinks her own made rice alcohol. But Quentin’s favorite thing is definitely her brilliant smile… Even if she has only three teeth left. Yep, Paulina is eighty-five years old! But she still have a lot of strength and courage, waking up every morning at 7 o’clock to help her daughter Celia to work on the farm, carrying enormous bundles of corn, nuts or grass on her back thanks to a sherpa-like string passing on her forehead.
It’s been raining for a few days now. Everyone in the village is waiting eagerly for the sun to come back to start harvesting the grapes. Saturday morning, we finally wake up with a blue sky above our heads. The maturity of the grapes are tested one last time then the « go » is given! Quickly, the villagers organize themselves, calling neighbors, running everywhere, carrying boxes… Soon everyone is in the grape field. We are in charge of the control of the quality of the grapes picked by the tibetans. They are lovely, working hard in a good atmosphere, talking and laughing, but after a while they are not as conscientious… And the grapes need to be perfect to make his « grand cru ». Right now, the grapes are very sweet, juicy and delicious. « Pure gold » !
Soon after dinner, everybody come back to sort the grapes. Most of the workers are women with strong personalities. They talk and laugh loudly, joking and gossiping. Awesome memory! Around midnight, the first barrel is full. All the workers go back home to find some rest while the two french stays to start the wine making process.
Next day is Sunday, everybody goes to the chapel to pray « Dubondu » (funny tibetan word coming from french « le Bon Dieu »). Beautiful moment. The villagers sing their faith in God. They’ve got incredible voices: strong, harsh, high but melodious… This music bewitches us. During the prayers, life doesn’t stop. Men are sitting on the right, women on the left, children in between are running or playing ball. Babies pee on the floor, mothers breastfeed, teenagers exchange bits of conversation. It’s certainly not the most beautiful liturgy one can ever see but their faith is true, simple and touching.
Freshly killed in the morning, a pig is sold outside the chapel at the end of the ceremony. Pieces of meat hanging from the porch that everyone buy with appetite! That’s the moment we choose to leave, after having say goodbye to our friends. We have to keep on traveling, but a piece of this place will always stay in our heart for sure.
Being part of the first harvest day of this awesome project and meeting all this amazing people was a great experience that we won’t forget anytime soon!
M. & Mme Shoes
Faces of Asia :
In Shangri-La and around :
- In Shangri-La’s old town, make a stop for lunch at the Flying Tiger Café ! Frank, the chef, crazy about chinese and Yunnan flavors, propose a menu that mix french gastronomy and local delicacies. And it’s all like if you where at home !
0887 – 8286661
91 Jin Long Jie Shangri-La Old Town 674400
- In Benzilan, north of Shangri-La, we recommand you to stop for a few days in Tulu Lodge, a wonderful eco-lodge. Estelle, the owner visit Yunnan since 25 years and leave here full time since a several years now. Guide in all the province, she’s also an amazing cook and specialist of the local flavors.
Traveling along Mékong :
- The road has been opened only a few month ago. So traveling in this valley is quite easy. A lot of villages are along the road, so you can easly buy food and drinks. No need to carry several days of food. Though, during summer the area is really hot and dry. Take a lot of water and sun protection.
Hitchhiking here is harder than it was in Qinghai or north Sichuan. We don’t know why, but if you want to do it, be aware of it.
Camping in this valley is not easy because of the landscape. High gorges, sharp rocks… Allow you some time to find the right spot before the sun come down.