Traditionally Tibetan, the town has had a large immigration of Han Chinese for decades and most of the new town has a real Chinese feel to it.. Still, the surrounding countryside and the old town has held on to its Tibetan feel and many locals can be seen going about their daily business in traditional clothing customary to their local Tibetan tribes.
I visited Zhongdian in 2005 and in 2007 and the amount that it changed in those two years surprised me, but it is an interesting study in the growth of modern China, and the part that tourism is playing.
When I visited in 2005, Zhongdian was one of my favorite places on Earth. It was just off the tourist radar, being about a 4 hour bus ride from the Chinese-tour-bus-infested Lijiang. The locals were friendly and the whole town emitted an atmosphere that made you feel like you were actually in the fictional land of Shangri-La (from the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon.)
The crooked, cobblestone streets led to lovely wooden guesthouses. Every home emitted the welcoming smell of a wood fire and murmur of friendly conversation. I remember stopping to talk to fellow travelers about the best places to stay and the best restaurants to try local foods. It really was my Shangri-la and I was sad to leave, but I was already planning my next visit, just two years later…
Unfortunately, when I visited two years later, the once quiet entrance to the old-town was blocked by tour bus after tour bus. The wonderful atmosphere that I felt on the first visit was replaced by Chinese tour guides with megaphones and rude foreigners who seemed to be upset that they weren’t the only westerners there. The locals stayed friendly, but you needed to get out of the touristy old city and visit the surrounding countryside to really feel that Tibetan atmosphere.
A short walk (or short bus ride) from Zhongdian is Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. It’s a large monastery that houses about 700 monks. Both times I visited, the entire area was a construction site. Honestly, if you’re going to venture farther into Tibet, you could give this monastery (and it very high admission price) a skip… There are more authentic ones with nicer monks in other towns. This one just felt to me to be built for the tourists. That said, it is beautiful and if this is the closest you’re getting to Lhasa, you should definitely have a look.
Zhongdian is the starting point for 4-wheel drive expeditions to Tibet. If you’d like an adventure, the 7 day journey sounds amazing. You could also fly to Lhasa from the town’s airport, there’s one flight a day in the high season. Check the Tibet Cafe & Inn for more details.
**What most people now refer to as “Tibet” is actually the Tibet Autonomous Region or “Xijang.” The Kingdom of Tibet was actually almost three times the size of Xijang. The Chinese divided Tibet into pieces and what was originally Tibet can now be found in the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinhai, and Gansu. The funny thing is, that the Tibetans in these areas are often more free to to express their culture and religion than those found in Xijang, making these great areas to visit.
Both times that I visited Zhongdian, I continued my journey by taking a two day bus ride to Litang in Sichuan Province to the north. Litang is possibly my favorite town in all the world and will be the subject of the next post in this series.
This post is the first in (hopefully) many on Tibet. Update: The next is on Litang. The rest can be found here. I’ve traveled extensively in the region, especially the areas now in Chinese provinces. I have an extensive collection of photographs and will try to bring you new posts as I have time in the future. Until then, have a look over at my portfolio website for a Tibet Travel Gallery and a Tibet Portrait Gallery.