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, having crossed over onto the edge of the Tibetan world, where it is always time to visit a monastery - the second such visit to a monastery in two days.
This monastery was out of town, down a dusty cobbled road; its entrance around a bend. Easy enough to find, the monastery gave me hope.
For having come across the edge of this 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 basin.
Today I was stuck, for everyone was leaving and all evacuating buses were fully booked. It had led to the unthinkable, a taxi ride to another small town, shared with a male 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, 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; this time in a Chinese branded minivan, showered once more with each other’s company, plus another four Chinese males fitted in for good measure.
The shared costs were coming down but … an hour into the journey the minivan broke down, causing us to be delayed while we waited patiently on the side of the road for a replacement.
We were stuck with each other’s company, with 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 a monastery.
Left to my own devices, I decided to walk on a wandering track towards a hill overlooking the town. Through a village and around a hill I traversed, until I came across a monastery the other two were probably still looking for.
It was a bout of luck, the monks at the monastery in high spirits, the sound of laughter echoing. The monks were displaying a palatable level of excitement and were hurriedly and chaotically organising themselves into a procession, well beyond the walled confines of their own humble existence, into the great wide open plains beyond.
And all I wanted was a coffee...
For me the procession had ended, the monks walking off into the distance, leaving me with the French and the Swiss who had arrived late.
Apparently, in the short interim they had been away, they had been invited to a Chinese wedding, bells ringing in my head.
But the wedding was not for another week?
So the invitation was kind of like when I get invited to a wedding – held when I can’t attend. The history of my personal invite list been ‘Four Funerals and a Wedding’ as opposed to the title of the British movie ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’
And that was how it was for the final two days of our journey, aboard a couple of buses carrying evacuees; locals with their lifetime possessions. The smoke was billowing from the Chinese male across the aisle. He was onto the third of his 30 cigarettes, motioning for me to move my day-bag, stationed by my feet, so he could manoeuvre his spittle.
I looked out the window of the bus, upon winding roads leading us astray but bringing us all together; winding roads with one task to fulfil – to get us to our destination. Around the hills, the Himalayas were beyond sight but their footprint was still visible.
And progress towards Chengdu was slowly been made…until we had to stop on multiple occasions for repairs…and then later because we had somehow forgotten a fellow passenger.
She had been delayed because she had struggled to dismantle the hand basin at the hotel room where she was staying. But eventually she had succeeded and everything could now, once again, move forward…forward towards Chengdu, into a daze, with the later half of the 21st century quickly catching up with us.