Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Chilling Out At The Puppet

There was a day when there wasn't any electricity for hours between 9am to 5pm. Didn't affect much because half of us were out in the mountains. When the electricity came back into town the next day, the espresso machines resumed their functions.

It was a rainy day and a time to rest. I had my books to read and a notebook to fill in. The silly girlfriend decided to relive her barista-days and went to play with the coffee machine at Puppet Restaurant (木偶之家). Not too bad an attempt. Hehehe. But I prefer the restaurant's usual cup of long black.

Located in Old Town, and right next to Indian/Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant Bhaskar, the Puppet is a cosy restaurant doing western and local menus. At the same time, Puppet is also an inn offering clean bunk beds and rooms upstairs to travelers on a budget. Nothing fancy, but clean, airy and bright. You don't need fancy when the town's electricity grids and sewage issues can't keep up. I appreciate Puppet's fast-enough wifi. Ahhh....with no VPN hor. The Great Firewall seems to have upped its game. It has been playing ball and kicked me out every other time I try to access stuff.

Puppet's few versions of fried rice are pretty good. I suppose the menu changes along to what the chefs could cook. Yak burgers are quite the norm here, along with spaghetti bolognese using yak meat. Plenty of surprisingly crisp thin pizzas. I love its homebaked granola too. Delicious with loads of nuts and all thrown in, crunchy and not too chewy, and not just filled with dried fruit.

云南省迪庆州香格里拉县,邮编 674499

Monday, August 24, 2015


Shangri-La's Old Town is still worth a walk through. Many streets and houses are being rebuilt after the 10-hour fire in January 2014. A distinct blend of Tibetan-Chinese architecture. Work is a long way from being completed. Would take another year to have Old Town back to its former glory. But as the town re-builts, the economy is slowly improving and the face of the town is changing.

Joined the hosts and friends dancing at Sifanglou Square (四方楼广场). Hahahaha. Not exactly line dancing lah. It's Tibetan dance. The area is typical as of any town centre. Loads of people hang out there at any random time of the day.

The dancing is held daily from 7pm to 8pm. The dancers kinda belong to some sort of workers' union....maybe. The grannies in Tibetan clothes lead the dances and probably choose the steps. Man, those Tibetan dance steps are tough to follow. The beats are a bit off. Or at least I don't feel the music... Anyway, it was a good workout, something different from climbing hills. Moved different groups of muscles for a solid hour till they actually ached the next morning.

One could see the commercialization and retail sector opening up. Not sure how I feel about it. It's fine if it's restricted to this town center where the banks, government buildings, bigger hotels and hospitals are. The same way why I'm not keen to be brought shopping at tourist spots anywhere in the world. What on earth is there for me to buy???! The last thing I want to do on a vacation is to mindlessly shop for more clothes, shoes and trinkets, all of which I don't need. 

Stalls that sell the same produce and products lined the streets. Tourists- domestic and foreign alike enthusiastically peered over these wares to buy them. Over at the New Town area, bakeries that sell decent bread price them way higher than what we city folks can stomach, like SGD 9 for a thin slice of cheesecake. Better treasure the small-town feel while it lasts. That's the conundrum. Tourists want both the local-feel and the big-city comforts and conveniences.

Sunday, August 23, 2015



There're many supermarkets and provision shops dotting the town. Those seem to be for dry goods and household products. For meat, vegetables and raw items to be cooked, those are separately found at either little stalls along the road set up by enterprising owners or convened at the bigger 'wet markets'.

Go early to catch all the sights and sounds. People shop early at the wet markets anyway. At home, I pop in to Tekka and Tiong Bahru Market all the time, and once in a while, if I feel like braving the crowds, Empress Place Wet Market and Bukit Timah Wet Market offers a break from the routine. There aren't cooked food stalls inside the Zhongdian wet markets though. But they line the streets surrounding it. If you like local breakfasts, especially dough fritters and soya milk (豆浆油条), you'll find plenty of such offerings at random stalls.

It's not that fun strolling along the stalls with nothing to buy. The best way to familiarize yourself with the wet markets is to head out with the a-yis and watch them shop for the day's meals. The a-yis like to pop in to the markets on a daily basis, or every other day. They don't particularly like using the fridge very much. It's like...it's cold enough here, and the fridge is like an expensive necessity that they would not use unless the summer is hot. People chill bottled drinks in the streams and rivers anyway.

The excitement, bustle, smells and colors. Freshly butchered slabs of meats laid out plump, bloody and bright. Vegetables plucked in the wee hours of the morning still hold soil and mud are merrily stacked in baskets for us to buy by the kilograms. Here, people shop in bulk and not by a quarter of a chicken or whatever. You get your money's worth when you buy the whole chicken or the whole hind leg of the yak or something. Nothing looks very fake here. They're all sourced from the surrounding farmlands that have produced rich and fertile harvests this year.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Minor Inconveniences

You know this thing about not flushing used paper down the toilet bowl? It's still like that in many parts of China. Nothing to do with being uncivilized. It's everything to do with efficiency. The flush and sewage systems aren't great, especially in mountainous regions where water pressure is usually weak unless the pumps generate enough strength, regardless of how fancy one's accommodation is. So it makes more sense to use the toilet bowl to dispose of bodily excrement, then throw the paper into the bin provided. That explains the stink of toilets in China. Sewage chokes and flooding are common occurrences. The irony of the name Shangri-la.

Okaay. I can't deal with that stench of toilets. That's why I brought along stacks of disposable bio-degradable dog-poop bags. FOR US TO USE. Especially important when we're not in the mountains and have to share a toilet in a house or an inn. Sure, it's shared by us, known faces, since we'd occupy all available rooms including the attached bathrooms. But knowing one another doesn't mean we accept each other's toilet habits. Ground rules have to be set. That common toilet has to be kept as pristine as possible. It's working great so far.

The thing about mountain towns. Electricity grid shut-downs are part and parcel of daily life in Zhongdian. The city councils would do it without warning. Luckily those last for about six hours. There were many times when they do it for more than a day, and once, four days at a stretch. But those, they at least notify the town in advance.

Now this, I can deal with. I've learnt to charge phones, cameras, torches, and all electronic gadgets whenever possible. I've enough power banks to see me through for 72 hours. However, I'm so busy that in reality, there's little need to turn on phones or whatever. What use do I have for electronic gadgets in the mountains? The guides are my maps and the compass and animals are all that's necessary. It's completely different from how hysterical I'll go if my flat in Singapore is deprived of electricity for more than 24 hours. Everything there is operated by a flick of a switch or a touch of the button. *shudder*

In the larger scheme of things, there'll be back-up generators to tide over for a bit. Many eateries have learnt to still use traditional gas tanks under their stoves, as well as charcoal and matches. Otherwise, businesses suffer terribly. Shower heaters and all that are still powered by solar energy. Out of the mountains (where daily showers aren't needed...) into town, I've switched to showering at night and quickly. My usual six-minute shower became four minutes flat. Hurhurhur. Cannot don't shower daily lah! That's maybe for winter when it goes down to -17°C.

Friday, August 21, 2015

香格里拉藏族黑陶 :: 尼西乡

The route down to Nixi Village. 

In Tibet and Zhongdian, you'd have seen the black clay utensils at the restaurants or in the homes. In this region, the black clay pots, pans, basins, plates, cups, teapots, vessels, vases, etc, have been made by potters from Zhongdian's Nixi Village the same way for the past 1200 years. (尼西黑陶) The utensils are intended for daily use in Tibetan homes, with the raw clay of brown and white drawn from the surrounding mountains. The black color isn't painted on. It's a result of the way the pottery pieces are baked in the kiln without exterior coatings of glaze or colored ceramic chips.

We went out to Nixi Village to visit its pottery workshops. It was certainly a scenic drive. Chuckled as we passed by a defunct ski slope and resort. It opened to fanfare in 2007/2008. But it has since closed. Really, the operators should have done their homework and known that the snow in this region isn't the sort of powder snow suitable for skiing. What an utter waste of resources. The poor trees chopped down for an exercise in futility.

A teapot with uhh poor-quality
but refreshing raw pu'er.
Along the way, there're a number of cooperatives/shops you could stop at to buy the pieces or eat from them in the form of a hotpot. The chicken hotpot (土鸡火锅) is insanely popular. It's chicken. I passed on it. Although that chicken is lean and doesn't hold much meat. It's kinda sweet. As free-range and kampung as it gets.

There're now approximately 120 families of potters practicing their craft in the village. Each family of potters has its unique markings or designs to differentiate their finished pieces. Occasionally, white bits of porcelain or whatever stones would be laid within the clay as decorations. They use the simplest of tools to shape the clay and mark them. Some families have open kilns, but recently, to reduce pollution, they've built a closed kiln in the village to fire all the finished products.

We were invited into one of the spacious home-workshops of a pair of father-and-son. They specialized in making claypots and its stands. Visitors could also join them in trying their hand in making something. Not a structured session for sure. Not quite a classroom. But it's an easy flow of 'if you want to try'. None of us had any skill in moulding clay and would do better to quietly stand and appreciate the seeming ease as the men knead their vessels into existence. Such ease could only come from years of experience and daily practice.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


In Zhongdian, it's customary for hosts to cook or take guests out to a traditional communal meal of beef (yak) hotpot (耗牛火锅). It's rich yet not oily and one could add plenty of vegetables to it. Very satisfying. Definitely need at least a table of six to justify all the food. We've had many happy dinners of hotpot on rainy summer evenings when temperatures dip to 8°C with windchill.

Our hosts don't take meat as often as city folks do. Their meals are simpler, but when guests arrive, they bring out the meat. Like a celebration of sorts. We're wary of the costs involved and don't want to put our hosts through the effort, but it wouldn't be nice to decline. Need to find other ways to express our appreciation. We are so pampered.

A newly-made black clay pot.
For brevity, most restaurants now use a Beijing-style utilitarian copper hotpot that's not as breakable as the traditional black clay Tibetan pots. There's this whole idea of how the traditional claypots would make the broth and food taste better than copper pots. Oh well.

The black clay pots are made by potters from Nixi Village in the same way for the past 1200 years. (尼西黑陶) The utensils are intended for daily use in the homes, with the red clay drawn from the surrounding mountains. Occasionally, white bits of porcelain or whatever stones would be laid within the clay as decorations.

At one such hotpot dinner at the hosts' restaurant, we loaded up on the greens. The tang-or (茼蒿) that is normally eeky in Southeast Asia was unbelievably sweet that we had two servings of it. For carbs, we ordered a flat square pasta of sorts they call '面块'. Literally 'squares of flour'. It came in soup form, sour and spicy. So far, the spicy items here induced heat from chillies or peppers. Haven't had any unfortunate shock tasting Sichuan pepper, yet. Also had steamed dumplings of which they called 'momo' (馍馍) in Tibetan.

I enjoy the hotpot not so much for the beef. Bit chewy, but not at all gamey and frankly, it's delicious. I like the broth and nibble on loads of potatoes and vegetables. Had to wrap my tongue and call potatoes '土豆' instead of '番薯'. Like how tomato is called '西红柿' instead of what we normally term '番茄'.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


There's no better deal than to sleep in the our hosts' huge and drafty and rather bare wooden Tibetan-Chinese house sitting right by Lake Napa (纳帕海). This is like...atas base camp. Sleepings bags under a sturdy roof. Waking up to this view in the mornings outside the front door with a steaming hot cup of local strong black coffee is simply beautiful, fog or otherwise. This early in the day, one just wants to stay quiet to contemplate the scenery, rolling mists and sounds of nature.

Lake Napa is a designated nature reserve, 3125 square kilometers of wetlands for water fowl and migrating birds. The endangered rare black-necked crane hang out here half the year. Saw many of them. The lake runs into the nearby Jinsha River (金沙河), shrinking and flooding according to the seasons. It's swollen during spring and turns into wetlands after. At 10,700ft above sea level, the temperatures are cool and comfortable all year round. The alpine meadows are equally beautiful and cloaked in different colors every season.

While this is a popular tourist spot for visitors to ride horses across the wetlands, it doesn't hold any major hotels or resorts just yet. Some are being built though. Locals still live here and earn their living from the land, but the natural habitat is diminishing and agricultural practices are gradually lost due to the effects of being just a short 8km from downtown city centre. I shudder to think how this will look ten years later.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Granola & Yoghurt

This trip, I definitely need to eat especially when I'm up by 6am running around. Lunch can be dicey. Dinner is somewhere between 5.45pm to 7pm. The sun sets at 7pm and twilight is long as it's still summer. It only gets fully dark at about 8pm.

Couldn't wait to meet my supplies of granola, oats and all that when I got out to Shangri-la. They were separately shipped here with the rest of the project supplies. Heeeee. I cannot do noodles or even congee for breakfast, much less yak butter milk tea, soy milk or whatever it is the locals have. Really cannot. At most I do hard-boiled eggs. The eggs here are delicious. Straight from the chickens I spied running around freely.

However, a number of local eateries and cafes have surprisingly also baked their own versions of granola, which are very good too. I'm more than thrilled to know how easily obtainable my preferred breakfast items are. There'll be seasonal fruits juicy and crunchy to accompany the happy-usual-familiar granola; currently, it's loads of melons and grapes. Peaches and apricots aren't in season yet.

What's even better, there's always fresh milk and yoghurt made by the villagers. Hurrah. If batches run out, the commercial tubs work too. Yoghurt (酸奶) is made from both yaks and cows. A few days in, I even have my favorite commercial brand. Heh. It's Lesson (来思尔).