We were just a few tourists heading into the heart of Xianggelila in China, hoping to catch a glimpse of mao niu, or hairy cow (yak). The many rice paddies and crumbling stone houses blended into the background as our bus continued its way through the mountains. After an hour or two, the mountains themselves turned into a stunning backdrop as the ground became flat. Houses were separated by many miles and all I could see was grass and an occasional tree. We had left town while the sun was at its highest peak, but now it was nearly evening. Cold wind hit my face as I left my ride, surprising me. The afternoon temperature had been unmercifully hot.
â–º QUARTER FINALIST 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
The other tourists and I walked down a dirt path and we came face to face with towering doors that were carved with intricate flowers. We tentatively passed through them and the Tibetans villagers came out and placed a ceremonial white scarf around our necks. As I climbed up the steep steps that led to the dining hall, I saw that the sleeping quarters were crowded with old furniture. Colorful cloths decorated a wall and beds were made underneath a window. There were no familiar TVs or computers. The only technology that I could see were a few lightbulbs and even the sparse lighting was prone to outages.
There was no time to linger on the steps and we were all herded into the dining hall where we were presented with their local food of fermented rice dough and yak (poor cow). Lively music filled the cavernous room as we ate dinner. Suddenly the lights died, and the beating of the drums stopped. With the power failure, we were truly submerged in this ancient culture, untouched by modernization. Freezing in the dining room, we all clambered back outside and found that some of the villagers had set up an enormous bonfire.The fire raged, acting as a warm light piercing the otherwise frigid night. We had all gathered around it to escape the now abandoned house. As we stood there, the locals started singing in that distinct sonorous voice– perfect for breaking the emptiness of the outdoors. Soon, their bodies spun around in an ever increasing pace as they started an uncontrolled dance, and white scarves twirled in the air as if they were alive. The dance was mesmerizing and I realized that I had the privilege of witnessing an art form that has probably not changed for more than a thousand years. At first we were apprehensive, wondering whether or not we should intrude on this ancient dance. The natives somehow noticed our hesitation to join as they circled the fire, so they smiled warmly, inviting us to partake in their culture. Their faces lit with excitement and happiness as more people joined in the dance. It was not long before all our hands were linked. Although the other tourists came from different parts of China, and I as an American was a true outsider, we all forgot our origins and embraced each other in laughter, wild singing, and dance.
As we left this secluded landscape the next day, one thought ran through my mind. I had just found Shangri-La.
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