Leaving yesterday's amazing encounter with Panda's in Chengdu behind us, the next stage of our Cathay Pacific China Experience was going to be somewhat of a change in pace and scenery with us observing, well so we thought (more on that shortly), one of the "volunteer" tour options available to people who want to interact a little more with the people of China and of this region in particular.

Arriving last night in the dark, we were unable to observe the dramatically changing landscape below us and therefore were unaware of the fact that we had gained quite a lot of altitude in our journey from Kunming. In fact, in arriving in Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian) we had arrived on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, and consequently had arrived at around 10,800 ft (3,300m). Even before being told this by our awaiting guide, Stone, I felt the effects of the height we had reached above sea level as my head began swimming as soon as I left the confines of the plane and began walking up the ramp to the terminal. I've never really felt light-headed in my life, so this was a rather uncomfortable feeling for me.

To put things into perspective, Australia's highest peak - Mount Kosciuszko is only 7,310 ft (2,228m). Does that help? Eek!

Actually, the penny now drops...

On the flight out, the air stewards were handing out these tiny packets of what Dad and I could see were pills of some kind. There was no indication on the packet, at least not in English, as to what they were, so we both made the decision to steer clear of them. Turns out they were herbal altitude sickness pills. Hmmmm... would have been good to know, in retrospect. Haha – duh!

Anyway, the light headed feeling passed almost instantly, and as quickly as we had entered the terminal, we had met up with Stone, our guide, and headed out into the unexpected cool air of the car park and our awaiting transport. As on previous occasions, Stone took the opportunity to give us a little background info on his little part of the world on our journey to the hotel.

Capital of the Diqing Tibetan Ethnic Minority Autonomous Prefecture, Shangri-La is home to a very hospitable population of around 120,000 people and consists of no less than 13 different ethnic minorities including a strong Tibetan population. The predominant language spoken is Mandarin, and Buddhism is the most influential religion practiced in the region.

Arriving at the hotel, Dad & I were both quite intrigued with what we had heard, and not really knowing what we were in for tomorrow, we were keen to get some rest and tackle the day with recharged batteries. Unfortunately, a quick check of email at the hotel revealed some work back in Vancouver that needed to be done, so I ended up slaving away for a couple of hours before putting my head down, while Dad attempted to get comfortable on the rock hard beds and push up some Z's...

Eastern Tibet Training Institute (ETTI)

A cold night and hard mattresses meant the desired night of restful deep sleep really wasn't to be, so we showered up, headed off to an interesting buffet breakfast and then met Stone out front of the hotel - we were a little more worse for wear than perhaps desired.

First stop of the day, and the primary reason for visiting this part of China was, as previously stated, to check out one of the "volunteer" options available to Cathay Pacific China Experience travelers - a visit to the Eastern Tibet Training Institute (ETTI).

Dad and I really had no idea what we were going to encounter, so we were looking to Stone for some guidance. He was able to tell us a bit about the operation, most of which is better explained by the ETTI website, so here’s a bit of an excerpt from the site that should communicate the organisations goals and purpose better than I can using my own words:

Considering Shangri-La's tourism industry is apparently booming and the town, with its beautiful surrounding natural landscapes, is becoming one of the most visited tourist destinations in China's southwest, the whole operation sounded pretty slick and we were looking forward to checking it all out.

I can't remember exactly what was said, or exactly when it was that the confusion became apparent, but by the time we had arrived at the Institute, there were already a couple of things that were troubling me. It all began when Stone asked what we were going to do at the school during the morning? Ummmm... we thought that was something he was going to tell us! Pair this up with the fact that apparently the students and supervisors were being brought in especially for us (on a Saturday), I was beginning to wonder if a little more was expected of us than we were aware of.

These awkward thoughts aside, we entered the Training Institute and were led upstairs to what looked like a meeting room or small classroom decorated by a large number of photos of past and present students participating in various elements of their courses. It was here that we met one of their English teachers - Mr He Ping.

After asking a few leading questions about the students in the photos on the wall, we still weren't able to get an answer out of Mr Ping as to what was about to transpire when we entered the room next door, so it was all still a bit of a mystery even when we were finally standing at the front of the class with 23 pairs of expectant 16-18 year-old eyes staring back at us.

As it turned out, somewhere along the way, the ETTI people were told that Dad and I were visiting to present a lesson.

Ummm... errrr... no, no we weren't.

Standing frozen and panicked in front of the kids who had only a couple of months of English studies under their belt, there was nothing left to do than to at least introduce myself and tell them all who we were, where we were from and why we were standing before them. SUPER AWKWARD!

As we ran out of things to say, we decided to try the "do you have any questions you'd like to ask us" route. None were forthcoming, so as another awkward silence fell over the classroom, we were finally saved by "Christine" a young American woman who is currently acting as curriculum coordinator and volunteer liaison for ETTI.

Realising that the information that they (ETTI) had been fed about our visit was well off the mark, she stepped in and instructed the students to continue working on a film documentary project they had started the day earlier.

As the kids moved into their various project groups, Dad and I got the opportunity to move around and take photos, ask a few questions, and pretty much get done what I always thought we were there to do in the first place...

A half hour or so of taking photos and the students were let go and asked to return to their dorm rooms which were a 20 minute or so walk from the Institute. Stone suggested we should tour these accommodations, provided free of charge to the students as part of their training, so we jumped in the car and headed off.

Considering we were easily going to beat the students back, Stone took us on a bit of a tour of Shangri-La's main drag, and some of the more impressive buildings in the area.

Arriving at the dorm rooms, we got a quick tour of the girl's rooms which I felt a bit weird about. I mean, we didn't give them any warning we were coming... something I would have appreciated if I were in their shoes. But anyway, we received a quick tour before herding all the kids together to take some class photos.

All the students were super friendly and were really good about us interrupting their weekend - thankfully!

Buddhist Temples & Prayer Wheel

Saying goodbye to our new young ETTI friends, we jumped back in a car with Stone and headed to the "Old Town" in the southern part of the city. This particular set of criss-crossing streets lies at the foot of a hill featuring a Tibetan monastery and what I am led to believe is China's largest Buddhist prayer wheel.

We couldn't just pass the monastery by without checking it out, so we spent some time scaling the many stairs, lined with brightly coloured Tibetan prayer flags, to reach the various impressive religious temples that lay at the top. Enter tough brush with altitude #2.

I had covered a much larger number of stairs a few days ago on the Great Wall of China, but these really took the stuffing out of me and I was gasping for the thin air at the top of the first set.

A number of great photo opportunities, however, awaited us as we climbed higher and closer to the giant prayer wheel. We had seen a number of local ladies roaming around the streets throughout the morning wearing bright pink head dresses that matched their also brightly coloured traditional clothing.

I wasn't successful in taking any shots of these ladies from a moving car earlier in the morning, so I got a few good opportunities to respectfully snap a couple of frames while light rain began to fall and we received a short and sharp tour of the temples.

Shangri-La Old Town

With a little time up our sleeves before needing to be back at the airport, we had the opportunity to explore the old town with the goal of finding somewhere for lunch. Stone was keen for us to visit a place he knew of that would be able to dish up some traditional Tibetan dishes, so we made our way along a number of the cobblestone roads lined by cute and obviously tourist-aimed trinket shops selling all sorts of Tibetan crafts from bells to sculptures, colourful masks and beautifully woven mats and clothing.

After 20 minutes or so of wandering in the general direction that Stone had sent us in, we emerged into what appeared to be the town square. Here there were a number of open food stalls where you could buy pretty much anything "on a stick" and it seemed to mark the beginning of the restaurant district (if there is such a thing).

Apparently the square features dancing displays nightly at 8pm where locals and any adventurous tourists of all ages are welcomed to join in for an hour or so of traditional, choreographed dance.

Traditional Tibetan lunch

By now my stomach was well and truly telling me it was time to eat, so I was quite excited by the time we were seated at a table with a view, upstairs in a really cute, family-run restaurant. As Dad, who is a lot more worried about foreign foods and tastes than I am, put it, "This time we ate local with a vengeance."

Stone and Mr Ping, who joined us for lunch, took control of the ordering, and a number of new and interesting dishes began making their way out from the kitchen. We kicked things off with some yak butter tea (an interesting flavour if nothing else), which Dad and I rather quickly washed away with some beer! Haha!

Next it was some yak yoghurt, a sizzling eggplant and vegetable hot pot, lamb skewers, raw yak meat with an explosive sauce (honestly, this stuff made wasabi seem like a weak cousin) and yak meat dumplings.

Yup, it was yak all around for the first time (and perhaps the last time) for Dad and me. I really enjoyed it all - it was a great culinary experience.

With full bellies, it was time to head back to the airport again, thank Stone for his hospitality and guidance (despite the awkward confusion earlier in the morning) and check-in.

It seemed like the airport was only just opening for the day upon our arrival (mid afternoon on a Saturday), so there was a bit of waiting around in the departure lounge before we finally boarded our flight, bound for Kunming and ultimately Shanghai where we'll kick off our two-day tour of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, starting tomorrow!

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