Searching for Shangri-La
by Hao.Zheng

I first learned the word "Shangri-La" as a hotel chain's name. I didn't know what it meant, but I liked the pronunciation of the word, both in English & Chinese. Later on, my friend told me that Shangri-La was a mysterious place in James Hilton's 1933 best seller "Lost Horizon". Shangri-La is the land of peace, away from the turmoil of the world. People there believe in moderation, and they often could live for hundreds of years. Nobody knows where Shangri-La is, the novel hints it's somewhere near Tibet.

In 1995, Xuan Ke, a legendary Naxi-Tibetan scholar claimed that Deqin in North-West Yunnan is Shangri-La. The sacred Tibetan pilgrimage Mt. Melixue perfectly resembles the "mountain of  blue moon" in the novel. The blood-red valley is rich in ore. For thousands of years, Deqin had been an isolated town. People from different religions, nuns & monks, Tibetans, Muslims, Han Chinese, and a dozen or so other minorities, peacefully pray together. All the evidence fits the description from the novel.

I have dreamt about going to North-Western Yunnan for quite a long time. I decided to go in June of 1999 because I heard that azaleas would bloom around this time of the year. It turned out to be a great decision. I had never seen so many beautiful flowers, often covering the entire mountain

My friends & I flew from Beijing to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan. Kunming is the "City of Spring". The weather is spring-like most time during the year, and it has many interesting sights. I skipped the city & went directly to the ancient capital of Dali.

Tourists used to take a 12-hour bumpy bus ride to Dali. Not anymore! You have the choice of air, train, or bus. We took an express, a joint-venture Volvo produced in China, and it only took 4 hours.  Half the trip was traveled on a newly built highway, so it was really a breeze. Dali old town is a perfect place to escape. The town sits between Mt. Cang & Lake Erhai. Though the city is more commercialized than Lijiang, another jewel of Yunnan, it still has lots of charm. Walking around its interesting backstreets, sipping cappuccinos on the "Foreigners' Street", drinking Tsing Dao or Dali beer, and chatting with friends or strangers, one can easily forget time and spend weeks in Dali.

Dali & Yangshuo have become the most famous laid-back vacation destination for foreigners who work or study in China, but none could compare to Lijiang.  The United Nations placed Lijiang Old Town on its World Heritage Site list a few years ago. Lijiang is a delightful maze of cobbled streets & ancient canals. It has many varieties of Naxi wooden buildings. The town is especially charming during early morning. You can stand on top of the Lion Hill to watch the town come alive, wander around town to see Naxi women in traditional dresses working hard to support their families, or sit in a corner eatery to try some delicious Lijiang Baba. During the day, you can visit the bustling market square to buy some beautiful embroidery, or visit shops around the town to get some beautifully hand-carved Naxi wooden plate. During one of those visits, I met my friend Ma. His work is different from others, and unlike other assemblyline-like shops, he only makes one plate for each design.

When you visit Lijiang, keep in mind is that in Naxi culture, women are in charge of the family.  Many shop owners & street merchants are women, and you can always see them carrying huge, heavy baskets going to the morning marketplace. Often, men don't have to work, part of the reason many Naxi men become artists. So if you are impressed with talented guys like Xuan Ke, don't forget the women who stand behind them.

At night, many people attend the performance of the Naxi Orchestra, a group of 20 or so old musicians. The group plays many beautiful pieces of ancient Chinese music, and they  toured in Europe & the U.S. Xuan Ke, the host of the group, is about 70 years old but looks  very young & energetic. He spent 20 years in labor camps after the Hundred Flower Movement. He speaks excellent English, and is very talkative & funny. Sadly, each year some musicians pass away, and they have to find some young people to fill in. Similar to Dali & Yangshuo, the town has many interesting guesthouses & small restaurants. They are inexpensive & full of personality. Many people come to Lijiang spending weeks in the old town & the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is the deepest gorge in the world. The altitude drops about 12,800 feet. The Yangzi River rushes through the Haba Snow Mountain (5,396 meter/17,703 feet high) and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,596 meters/18,360 feet high). We hired some horses & guides to climb the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. As most tourists, we made it to the Silver Fir Meadow. Even though it was cloudy, the view was stunning. We also took the cable car to the 14, 500 feet level, and I saw glaciers for the first time in my life. That feeling was awesome!

My friends & I did not have enough time to hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, so we hired a taxi to do some touch & go sightseeing over there. Still we were impressed. The gorge was so narrow at the Tiger Leaping Stone, the river was roaring. People could hardly hear each other talking while walking by. We also went to the First Bend of Yangzi. Over there, the mighty river took a dramatic turn, instead of heading South to Vietnam, it heads to the East. From there, Yangzi shaped the Chinese culture, and it changed the world.

After we left the Tiger Leaping Gorge, we headed all the way to Zhongdian, about 120 miles North-west of Lijiang. The majority of the population in this town is Tibetans, but there are many other minorities living there. Zhongdian has the most important Tibetan monastery in South-West China, the Songzanlin, and it's surrounded by some beautiful meadows covered with millions of azaleas. From Zhongdian tourists could go to many interesting sites, so we decided to set up our "base camp" there.

Napahai Nature Reserve used to be a huge lake. Due to geological change in the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau, the lake has mostly dried up. The grassland it leaves behind attracts many species of birds for the winter, including the black-necked crane (class one endangered species). After taking some pictures, we headed to Deqin.

People who are not used to high altitudes may experience mountain sickness. Luckily we didn't. The mountains in Yunnan are huge. The altitude from Kunming to Deqin rises from 5,000ft to 22,000 ft. When travelling from Zhongdian to Deqin, we often crossed the 12,000 ft range. Cars also experience mountain sickness. At such high altitudes, gas can not be burned completely, so we had to slow down while climbing the mountain.

The road to Deqin is the worst road I had ever come across, and it is the most dangerous too. We changed our tires twice in just 220 miles, and each of us ate quite a few pounds of dust. The road is very bumpy. It's narrow, and at many points, takes three 180 degree turns in a row, all blind-sighted. Outside the car are deep gorges, where we saw the remains of quite a few cars & trucks, which fell from the mountaintop. We also  worried about what would be on top of us, since landslides are very frequent around this time of year. We almost hit the cars from the opposite direction a few times. The road was barely wide enough for two cars. Often I was so afraid  if  I could ever make it home

The hardship paid off. About 80 miles from Zhongdian sits the Mt. Baimang.  Mt. Baimang is the largest animal & plant reserve in Yunnan. Over 200 different varieties of wild azaleas are found here, and these azaleas are at their best in early June. The entire mountain is covered with blooming flowers. Melted snow formed many springs.  Yunnan is about the same latitude as Louisiana, but during summer the mountains in North-Western Yunnan are covered with snow. I was so impressed with the snow peaks, and  had to stop the car so many times to shoot pictures. There is a large meadow near the top of the mountain, with many horses & cows wandering around. Blue skies, white clouds, snow peaks, large meadows, and the lovely animals & flowers- a perfect picture! I wish I could live there forever.  That's the Shangri-La I am looking for.

We spent quite a few hours at Mt. Baimang. We shot a lot of pictures there, and also picked some snow tea,  different from green tea or red tea.The leaf is white, about an inch long, and  very thin. These leaves only grow at very high altitude. It's a little bitter, but very refreshing.  Locals told us it can be used as medicine. We then headed to our destination, the sacred Mt. Melixue. Mt. Melixue is one of the most beautiful snow peaks in China. Many people, including Joseph Rock, used to believe it's the highest mountain in the world. While its absolute altitude is not as high as those peaks around the Himalayas, its comparable height is among the highest. At 6,740 meter (22,113 feet) high, Mt. Melixue is Yunnan's highest & most challenging. The Kagbo peak has never been climbed, and actually it has buried many mountaineers. Locals believe those mountaineers had made the spirit of the "virgin peak" angry

Mt. Melixue has been a Tibetan pilgrimage site for thousands of years. Since the snow peaks are so high, always behind the clouds.  Even if the sky is so clear elsewhere, mist & fog from the snow & Mingyong Glacier would block the view of the Kagbo. In fact, it snows everyday on top of the mountain. Some Tibetans wait for months or even years just to see the full view of the sacred peak.

When I first saw the mountain, I was overwhelmed. Even though Kagbo was behind the clouds as always, I felt the power of beauty. Mingyong Glacier, the lowest in China, looked like a huge waterfall pouring from heaven. Though I was 30 miles away, I could clearly see it. We waited more than 4 hours, but the clouds covering the mountain became more dense, and the sky was turning. We had to give up. While waiting, the party chief & many other leaders of the Deqin County were waiting for some journalists from other parts of China at the same spot we parked. The Tibetans were very friendly. When they heard that we were from Beijing, they presented us with some Tibetan "Hada", long strips of white cloth, and we were welcomed with their Tibetan liquor too. We were so pleased to have the "Hada" since it's the highest honor a guest could receive. It symbolizes bringing peace & luck to the friend coming from far away.

The next morning we were much luckier. Waking very early, we went to another viewing spot to see the Kagbo where we saw almost the entire Kagbo peak. I could not find any words to describe my feeling. I was stunned. The entire pyramid-shaped peak is covered with snow, and it wears a beautiful golden dress under the morning sunshine. As the sun rises higher, the peak turned whiter & purer. I was so anxious to see the entire view of the mountain. However, clouds covered the peak quickly. The Tibetans we met that morning told us that we were lucky. Kagbo had not showed up for 38 consecutive days. As we watched the fog & cloud rise from the glacier & cover the peak, we were speechless. The area around us was picture perfect. The sky was so clear, and we were surrounded by Mt. Melixue, Mt. Baimang, & a castle like mountain to the north of us. The azaleas were everywhere. Not far from there, a beautiful Tibetan village & a temple sits in the middle of  farm land. I was walking in a dream. I have found my Shangri-La!

When we had to leave, I was constantly turning my head. Why can't such beautiful moments in our lives last longer? We were pleased to pass Mt. Baimang again, it looked different from each angle. It took us much less time on the way back. Public transportation often takes around 12 hours, but we only took 5 and half hours to get back to Zhongdian. We indeed hired the best driver we had ever met. His driving skill is good enough to get him into some professional races.

The next day we went to Shangri-La Canyon, a newly discovered tourist site. The canyon is about 65 miles from Zhongdian, but it usually takes 5 hours to get there, and 4 hours to return. Since the road is as bad as the road to Deqin (with even more dust), few tourists even attempt to go there. The canyon was different from what I had imagined. Its tiny path is about 50 miles long, which lead people to many beautiful spots, eventually leading the way to Sichuan Province.

Before heading back to Lijiang, we went to the Bitahai Nature Reserve, a very beautiful highland lake. Photographers can easily spend days here. During the month of June, azalea petals, which are a little bit poisonous, drop into the lake, When the fish eat the petals, they became unconscious & float on the surface of the water as if they have died. During this time, wild black bears often come out under the moon light to pick up the easy meal. Like Mt. Baimang, Bitahai is also famous for its 200 or so varieties of azaleas.

It used to be so hard to get to Bitahai. People have to take a bus ride for an hour, and from there, they must take a half day horse ride to get to the lake. Walking is almost impossible because the mud would trap you. Now the situation has improved. The local government knows that Bitahai is the crown jewel of the region, so it built an excellent road to the top of the mountain west of the lake (I guess this is not good for those hard-core explorers).  From there, you can either take a 20 minute horse ride or a 40 minute walk on the wood-log path, which takes you to the deck of the lake. The lake is not big, but the view is so lovely, especially beautiful during early morning or late in the afternoon. When tour groups are not around, it is so peaceful.

We headed back to Lijiang in the afternoon, spending another day in the old town. We chatted with our friend Ma, a talented painter. When it was time to leave for the airport, we all agreed that we would return. In case you have a chance to visit Lijiang, I highly recommend you to visit his Tian Yu Gallery.

When we returned to Kunming, we were again very lucky. Just after we landed, a serious storm hit the city, causing great damage. The next day we attended The 1999 Kunming International Horticultural Exposition, a flower & garden show. People from all over the world come here to present their best gardening designs. The experience was very different from that of Shangri-La since so many tourists were roaming around the newly built complex. However, we did see lots of beautiful flowers, plants, and garden designs, and took a lot of nice pictures.

Before heading back to Beijing the next day, we tried some authentic "across-the-bridge rice noodles". The place we went to is across the street from the Holiday Inn. The place is called "Yunnan Typical Local Food Restaurant" (Zhen1 Xing1 Fan4 Dian4).  Although the cashier was not pleasant, the food is excellent. They have four varieties of noodles priced at 10, 20, 30, and 40 Yuan. I tried the 10 Yuan version, and I swear it's the best tasting noodles I've ever had.

Satisfied with the meal, we headed back to Beijing. This entire trip was unforgettable. We saw  spectacular scenery, interesting places, and met so many friendly people. Overall, we saw five great snow mountains, and climbed two of them. We visited two ancient cities, two Tibetan towns. We also saw two famous glaciers, many beautiful lakes, and the deepest gorge in the world. The journey was very challenging. We traveled 1,500 miles within Yunnan in 10 days, crossed the range of over 10,000 ft, and had to face raw conditions. On one hand, I wish the trip could' ve been more comfortable. On the other hand, I realize only that hardship prevents humans from destroying my Shangri-La.

Hao Zheng
came to the U.S. in 1994. He is studying accounting at Drexel University, and wants to become a CPA. He was surprised about Americans' perception of China when he came here, so he built a website trying to show the real China to the world.