This Way to Shangri-La

I am 100 percent sure this is Shangri-La,’ said Xuan Ke, thumping
his desk with conviction. ‘There is no doubt. I have all the

Well, that was easy. I had come to Lijiang in China’s southwest
province of Yunnan in search of paradise, and, according to this
local scholar, I had found it. But my first few impressions weren’t
so convincing. This remote hill town looks like any other
provincial Chinese city, teetering between a tired old past and an
ugly, modern future. Farm equipment shops rub shoulders with the
glass and steel of China’s emerging wealth in ‘new town’-Lijiang’s
bustling modern quarters. For every Mitsubishi Pajero cruising
along the widened new boulevards, there are dozens of
smoke-belching tractors hauling gravel down congested back streets.
If this is Shangri-La, the mythical utopia chronicled in James
Hilton’s 1933 classic, Lost Horizon, then I’m a bit late.

Yet Dr. Xuan Ke, an authority on the history and culture of
northern Yunnan, is convinced he has pinpointed the inspiration for
Shangri-La. ‘When I first read Lost Horizon, I was amazed,’ he
says, sitting in his low-ceilinged office, an unlit cigarette
dangling from his fingers. ‘It was very similar to Lijiang-very
similar to Joseph Rock’s writings.’

Rock, an Austrian-American naturalist and explorer, lived near
Lijiang from 1922 to 1949 and wrote extensively on local history,
culture and flora. His vivid accounts and photographs in National
Geographic in the ’20s and ’30s introduced the outside world-and
likely Hilton, Xuan theorizes-to his vision of Shangri-La. He finds
many parallels between the mythic Eden and the hills of northwest

The literary Shangri-La is dominated by Mount Karakal, ‘an
almost perfect cone of snow, simple in outline as if a child had
drawn it,’ wrote Hilton. According to Xuan, Hilton based his
descriptions on the local Karakal lookalike, the pyramid-shaped
Mount Jambeyang. Rock photographed it extensively in 1928, five
years before the book was published.

‘The geography and background point to Lijiang,’ Xuan
insists-and also to the Naxi, Lijiang’s dominant ethnic group.
Descended from Tibetan nomads, the Naxi have since been absorbed
into Yunnan’s cultural fabric-which includes more than 20 other
minorities, from Mongols and Tibetans to Yao and Bai Dai. Xuan is
Naxi and looks it, with his shock of dark hair and strong Tibetan
features. Pacing his office in loose denims and a Starsky and Hutch
sweater, he rails against local officials who claim their towns to
be the ‘real’ Shangri-La in an effort to boost tourism. ‘Their idea
of paradise is five-star hotels,’ he complains. ‘But that is not
what Shangri-La is about.’

So what is it about? And what is it about this area that
inspires dreams of paradise? By all accounts, Lijiang in Rock’s day
was a lyrical place, with babbling brooks and well-trimmed flower
gardens. In the ’40s, it was described as a ‘paradisiacal valley’
by Russian traveler Peter Goullart.

I begin to see signs of Hilton’s era in the cobbled alleyways of
the city’s old town. Here Lijiang is a medieval maze of curved roof
shingles and smooth flagstone streets, lined with rickety wooden
houses and arched stone bridges. Situated at a lofty 7,800-plus
feet, the town is framed by the Himalaya-style backdrop of the
looming Jade Dragon Snow Mountains to the north. Clear-running
streams thread through the town as in Hilton’s book. There are
canal-side restaurants just like his ‘painted teahouses by the

I decide to ponder the matter further at a canal cafe called
Mama Fu’s in the heart of old town. Lounging beneath a floppy
umbrella the size of a satellite dish, I sip strong Yunnan coffee
while ageless Naxi women pass by in traditional blue capes and
not-so-traditional Mao caps. They move down the street in packs,
lugging baskets of produce and squealing piglets to market. Mama
Fu’s is run by Mama and her 20-year-old daughter, Zhao Xun
Mei-better known as ‘Kitty.’ Like all the other women I’ve seen in
town, Kitty is bustling around, hard at work.

‘In Lijiang, women work and men rest,’ explains Kitty, second in
command at the restaurant after working at a paper mill for two
years. In the matriarchal Naxi culture, she points out, it’s the
women who hold economic power and control all aspects of trade and
commerce. Men are generally the child-minders, gardeners and

Kitty’s father joins us as if on cue, carrying the requisite
birdcage. Bird-keeping is almost a full-time occupation for many
Naxi men, who pamper their songbirds shamelessly with daily walks
and loving baths in the river. ‘They walk their birds, go to the
park, play mah-jongg-but the women are always working,’ says Kitty,
after greeting her father.When Kitty and I stroll to the market
square, I can see what she means. The benches are full of lounging
men, while, a few feet away, Naxi Bai women lug heavy loads of
bricks, cement and stone. It’s becoming clear that Lijiang is a
paradise of sorts-at least for men.

For better evidence of Xuan’s lost horizons, though, I need to
head deeper into the hills of Yunnan, to mountaintop monasteries
and isolated valleys of Rock and Hilton vintage. I hop on a bus
heading north for Zhongdian, the last main town before the Tibetan
border. The packed vehicle descends into the Lijiang Valley,
carving through a patchwork of shimmering green fields dividing
tiny villages bustling with tractors, bullock carts and bicycles.
Beyond the valley, hills of red clay and rock rise into snowcapped
peaks covered in fir trees. We climb onto an upper plateau peppered
with herds of grazing yaks. Bare wooden farmhouses rush past, their
windows framed in a riot of bright colors. Prayer flags flap in the

Zhongdian turns out to be an anticlimax, a one-street frontier
town with a lot of hotels. Since the town was opened to foreign
visitors in 1992, it has become a base camp for travelers exploring
the remotest reaches of southwest China. But if anyone here is
aware of the region’s alleged paradise status, not many seem to be
cashing in on the opportunity. The main street is refreshingly
devoid of ‘Shangri-La’ hotels and restaurants.

Like the other Western travelers in town, I’m only here to get
somewhere else-for me, Songzanling monastery, a window on the past.
I hop on a local bus early the next morning, but what I find at the
end of the road looks and feels more like a small village than an
exotic hilltop monastery filled with arcane rituals. Mud and clay
houses lie scattered around the hillside lamasery, connected by a
maze of dirt pathways. Children chant prayers behind high shuttered
windows. Monks and old women stream past, beaming warm, ageless
smiles. There aren’t any green porcelain bathtubs or central
heating as in Hilton’s book. The monastery has seen better days-its
crumbling walls are strewn with rubble. Prior to 1949, Songzanling
was a large, thriving monastery of the Yellow Hat sect. It was
destroyed following the Tibetan uprising of 1959, which was
brutally suppressed by the Chinese army. Today, more than 300 monks
have begun the process of rebuilding.

As I make my way down a muddy pathway, past cloud-white stupas
and prayer flags flapping against a cobalt blue sky, a young monk
invites me in for tea. Ducking through a low door, I enter a tiny
courtyard where piles of winter firewood lie stacked against a
mocha-colored mud wall. Fixing me with a grin, another monk brews
tea beside a small brazier-filling a bamboo tube with tea leaves,
yak butter and boiling water. Since their English is as limited as
my Tibetan, conversation is slow. We silently sip our yak-butter
tea in the age-old tradition. The monks ask me for a photo, so I
give them a passport photo of myself. No, they say, a photo of the
Dalai Lama,

their spiritual leader exiled in India, whose image is
contraband in China. The request seems a far cry from Hilton’s
‘moon-washed courtyards.’

My search takes me the next morning on the long road to the Naxi
community of Baishui Tai, in a valley 50 miles southeast of
Zhongdian. The backseat chorus on my bus groans each time we hit a
bump, which is often as we wind along steep and rutted mountain
roads. I arrive six hours later in Naxi country. It was here, I’m
told, that the Naxi dongba religion and its distinctive
pictographic script originated-and where Naxi shamans still read
chicken entrails to see the future. In most places the revolution
put an end to those sorts of things-but here in Yunnan’s remote
mountain valleys, a few old beliefs still linger. I wander through
Baishui’s creamy limestone terraces and marvel at the lost horizon
spreading out before me: emerald paddy fields ringed by the snowy
peaks of Yunnan.

‘These are the stairs of heaven,’ says a voice at my shoulder. I
turn to see a Chinese man pointing at the mountains above. ‘And
those are the stairs of earth,’ he adds, pointing at the rice

Early the next morning I plunge into this scene with a guide,
taking the 20-mile hike to the Naxi village of Haba. ‘You’re
halfway there,’ my guide announces after two hours of clambering.
‘Just follow the road,’ he says, referring to the dusty red streak
winding beneath our feet. Six long hours later, we’re descending
into Haba, crossing into another world. If ever there was a model
for the Blue Moon valley of Hilton’s Shangri-La, this is it. Before
me stretches a valley of rippling green fields crowned by the
16,000-foot white dome of Snowy Mountain, which towers over the
land like a brooding sentry.

It turns out to be ‘ancestors day,’ and the owner of the town’s
only guest house is celebrating with a family picnic over in the
cemetery. Huge black pots filled with pork, chicken, tofu, potatoes
and cabbage bubble over an open wood fire next to gravestones. The
ancestors are served first. A small portion from every pot is
offered to the grave sites, while children are instructed in the
art of kowtowing before their forebears.

I continue on a seven-hour walk through lonely pine forests and
sprawling paddy fields to the small village of Daju. The trail
continues, but I’ve come to the end of my time travels.

On my way back to Lijiang I ponder my search for paradise. I had
found a highland realm of matriarchal tribes, snowbound mountains,
yak-butter-tea-serving monks and graveside dinner parties-glimpses
of Hilton’s Shangri-La were everywhere, but so were shadows of
another utopia, Mao Tsetung’s, hardly a paradise for the Naxi, and
Tibetans, since the Red Army arrived in 1949.

I’m reminded of that back in Lijiang in the person of Xuan Ke. I
meet Xuan at the Naxi Academy of Music. When he’s not playing
literary detective, he runs a nonprofit organization that teaches
Naxi music, history and culture to students free of charge. It’s a
labor of love for a man who spent 40 years watching Naxi culture
slowly being destroyed, 21 of them from a labor camp.

He invites me to a concert of Naxi music that evening that is
packed to the rafters. The Dayan Music Troupe, an ensemble of
white-bearded elderly men in elaborate gold brocade, sits on the
stage tuning ancient long-necked instruments. The men play music
that disappeared from China by the 13th century but has been kept
alive in Lijiang.

The lights are dimmed. As the haunting sounds of a melody
composed more than a thousand years ago fill the room, I’m carried
into a timeless realm, wondrously strange and dissonant, an aural
lost horizon. I recall Xuan Ke’s words-‘If people think Shangri-La
is one place, this is a mistake. They will not find it this way.
Shangri-La is not just a specific place. It is also an idea, a

And a hope. One that lives on for people like Xuan Ke.

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