Having spent time in Hong Kong being whisked about in a Mercedes from, amongst other places, Victoria Peak to lunch in Aberdeen, we found ourselves in the back of a much less luxurious vehicle, with a suitcase each sitting on our laps. We had arrived in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, and were gradually exposed to amenities that were more rudimentary as compared to our experiences in Hong Kong. Lijiang is home to an Old Town district; a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is as picturesque as any lantern-strewn Chinese street scene you can imagine. However, the other face of Lijiang is a bustling city with few obvious attractions; except if you are a westerner who wants photographs of urban Chinese life bereft of western influences, and markets that you wouldn’t dream of eating from. There’s plenty of opportunities to see both, and the locals will generally not get in your way or object to any level of photography.
Our journey took us to the some of the remotest parts of China, with our ultimate destination being the Tibetan city of Shangri La, previously known as Zhongdian County: the gateway to Tibet. Ancient agricultural practices are in evidence here also, including observations of local culture practices that extend to all generations; which is rare in western countries. An example is the dancing in the town square every evening, during which even some of the “trendier” youths take part, and with some gusto. Back home my contemporaries would be aghast at such obligations. Shangri La, though, is also home to the Tibetan Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery. This is a grand juxtaposition of ornate gold plated façades, and the slums that house the lower orders of the monastery. We’ve all seen images of Buddhist monks praying and chanting, understanding that they devote their lives to this faith. However, that doesn’t really prepare you to watch them in practice, knowing that their lives and yours are different in every way imaginable.