Shangri-La - a fictional land of peace and perpetual youth, I was there in real person, not bothering to read the novel for references. Another backpacker was encouraging me to “drink my friend, drink.”
From the cup of youth?
He had handed me a cup of water after I had queried ways to beat altitude sickness.
We were high.
From the bliss of finding eternal nirvana?
We were 3,160 metres above sea level.
I had crossed over into the Tibetan world and it was time to visit a monastery, the second monastery in two days.
I was not even formally religious.
The monastery was out of town, down a dusty cobbled road, its entrance around a bend.
It was easy enough to find, giving me hope.
Having come across the edge of the Tibetan world, rising ever skyward, tomorrow I would have to turn north, skirting the Tibetan world’s eastern border. It would be a four day trip to my next destination Chengdu, the major city of the Sichuan province; the place of panda bears and spicy food.
Having bought an authentic Chinese steamed bun and then boarded the early morning bus, due to leave from Shangri-La, the bus driver stuck out his gloved hand towards me. It appeared he wanted another 25 yuan, in addition to the 83 yuan I had paid to the ticketing office the previous day.
I stepped back, but the bus driver continued with his theatrics, signalling that he was taking some sort of straight line to Daocheng.
Confused, someone sitting towards the back of the bus spoke up, speaking English.
“The bus driver is taking the quicker route to Daocheng. Instead of taking eight hours the journey will only take seven, so you have to pay an additional 25 yuan.”
“But I paid for an eight hour bus trip?” I replied.
The interpreter looked at me quizzically.
So I repeated “But I purposely paid for an eight hour bus trip?”
Confused, the interpreter looked at me quizzically.
The conversation was getting nowhere and my authentic Chinese steamed bun was becoming a soggy mess, so I relented and paid the bus driver the extra 25 yuan. I sat down at my allocated seat, ready for the day ahead; look out a window for seven hours instead of the originally paid for eight.
Daocheng was a small, standard one-street town with a monastery, overlooking, on a hill above. The previous night I had found accommodation in a small cheap hotel room, with a dripping shower and no hand sink.
Today I was stuck, for everyone was leaving and all evacuating buses were fully booked. It led to the unthinkable, a taxi ride to another small town, shared with a French tourist, who spoke some Chinese, and a lady in her early 20s from Switzerland.
We spoke little, the continental divide too broad, with little interest in each other’s lives or thoughts. I looked out the taxi window, counting the cost, thinking of the trade-off between time, money and other people’s company. We were reaching the lower levels of mountainous snow, high hills, arid land, people in living in tents, winding roads, rock falls and wandering thoughts.
Until we arrived at some nondescript town and over dinner we talked and planned. Tomorrow was to be another taxi ride, in a Chinese branded minivan, showered once more with each other’s company; plus another four Chinese fitted in for good measure.
The shared costs were coming down but … an hour into the journey and the minivan broke down, delayed, waiting patiently, on the side of the road for a replacement.
We were stuck with each other’s company, silence and frustration, none of us for some reason talking, until we finally arrived in Litang and we decided to take a break from each other.
Or perhaps the two Europeans just wanted to have a break from me?
The French man and the Swiss lady decided to go on the hunt for another monastery.
Left to my own devices I decided to walk on a wander towards a hill overlooking the town. Through a village and around a hill I traversed, until I came across the monastery the other two were still looking for.
It was a bout of luck, the monks at the monastery in high spirits, laughing.
It was the start of a procession, leading all the way to heaven itself.
The procession had ended, the monks walking off into the distance, leaving me with the French and the Swiss who had arrived late.
In the interim they had been invited to a Chinese wedding, which they will never have time to attend, so they were alright. We made our way back to the town and found another excuse to depart each other’s company.
My excuse was I needed to find a place that sold caffeine and I had happened upon an advertisement for such a fix earlier that afternoon. I was desperate, as desperate as my companions to let me go, and I took off.
But not before we had booked our tickets, for a bus departing early the next day; a bus that would be carrying the lifetime possessions of the people’s departure. But not us. We were delayed, as layer upon layer was thrust upon the roof.
The smoke was billowing from the smoker across the aisle, onto the third of his 30th cigarettes, motioning me to move the day back stationed at my feet so he will have more room to manoeuvre his spittle.
The winding roads, around hills, forever, the Himalayas beyond sight but their footprint visible. We had to stop. Repairs then further progress. Lunch, repairs then onwards once more until we stopped for the night in another town, another isolated valley, a tourist traverse.
But we had to keep moving, keep rolling on and next morning it was another departure, another bus, another delay as 30 minutes into the journey we found we had forgotten another passenger.
We were all at fault, but with time, the target of Chengdu came ever closer.