I have been kicking around China for 28 years, you would think I had been everywhere. No, actually not. China is huge, Beijing and Shanghai and Xi’an are fine, but there is more. So much more. So I had a few unfilled days in China, and staring at the map, I realized I had not been to the Southwest for a very long time, and there are places of interest to which I had never been. A few emails and phone calls later, and I was on my way to Shangri La.
Let me explain a little bit. The original Shangri La was a fictional land described in the novel Lost Horizons. It was supposed to have been a hidden valley high in the Himalayas, where the peaceful people lived under the gentle guidance of the monks of a Lamasery. Since the novel’s publication, many adventurers have been searching for the “real” Shangri La. As it happens, there is a remote part of Northern Yunnan Province that somewhat fit this description.
Butting up against the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau, the altitude at Zhongdian is roughly 10,000 feet. The town sits at the northern end of a plateau and is surrounded on three sides by mountains that push upwards of 20,000 feet. There is a very large and important Tibetan Monastery, Songzanlin, which is considered by some to be second only to the Ganden Monastery in Lhasa in importance to the Tibetans. (shown photo) And for most of its history, it has been hidden, peaceful and isolated.
In a bit of marketing genius, the local mayor applied to the central government and had the name of the town legally changed to Shangri La. And presto, it became a tourist destination of some significance overnight. Add in a new airport, some international standard hotels and a few tracts of mountains now listed as national parks, and you have something! So yes, you can now really go to Shangri La!
OK, so I did not go directly there. After a couple of days in Shanghai (shopping!), we headed to Lijiang, which is also in Yunnan Province, and stayed for two nights at the Banyan Tree Hotel.
Yunnan is to the Chinese much like the old Southwest was to the Americans in the 1950s. It is the Wild West. The province is now awash in young, cowboy-hat wearing Chinese travelers. The scenery is magnificent, you can ride horses and, like the Native Americans in the southwest, you can hang out with the natives.
Yunnan is home to a significant portion of China’s ethnic minorities; Naxi, Bai, Tibetans, and many others. Lijiang is the largest city in the northern part of Yunnan and is home to several of these groups, most notably the Naxi. The old town of Lijiang is under UNESCO protection. More on that later. The valley in which Lijiang sits is at about 7,000 feet elevation and is dominated by Jade Snow Mountain, whose jagged peaks reach some 18,000 feet. The old trade routes (called the Tobacco and Horse Route in Chinese) that connected China to Tibet ran through this valley, and the horse features prominently in the local folklore, at least as interpreted by the modern Chinese tourist.
We stayed at the Banyan Tree Hotel just north of Lijiang city. The property is beautiful; following the Banyan Tree theme, they have blended in very, very well with the local environment. The décor was very traditional, the grounds stunning, and the service excellent. Most of the rooms are private villas with courtyards of their own, ours had a hot tub. At first I was disappointed that we were not in the old town, but I changed my mind.
A very short walk from the hotel is the small town of Shaohe, which consists of two parallel streets lined with shops and restaurants. (photo) A complete loop through the town on foot took less than an hour. There are several coffee shops where you can sit along the small creek that runs through the town. Everyone was friendly, the pace was fairly slow; it was an altogether charming place. I ate dinner here one night in a place that said “Western Food”, and had an entirely respectable plate of pasta with black pepper beef. Not bad at all.
So we spent one full day kicking around the valley. We visited the former residence of Dr. Rock, who was a western scientist who lived in the area for several decades during the early 20th century. We had lunch in Baishi village and saw some very interesting murals dating to the 16th century. In the afternoon, we saw the show produced by Zhang Yimou of Olympic Ceremony fame. I have seen two of his shows previously elsewhere in China, and had high expectations for this. Frankly, it was disappointing: it was very much aimed at the Chinese wild west tourist and had very little content that one not immersed in the local mythology could understand. We spent the rest of the day in town, visiting Black Dragon Pool Park (very famous, very pretty, very crowded.) There was one very nice portion of this. Our guide was of the Naxi nationality. He took us into a small museum where we had a chance to meet with one of their traditional priests. These men are called Dongba, they are sometimes called necromancers; they were believed to communicate with the spirit of the dead. The dongba was kind enough to write a few words in the Naxi written language (which is unique) for us. It was a very nice moment.
The Old Town was frankly a disappointment. As mentioned, it is UNESCO protected. But it has been completely overrun by the domestic tourists. It frankly reminded me of Frontier Land at Disney Land. Lane after lane of little shops and bars, all packed, all selling the same stuff. Lots of young Chinese guitarists playing what sounded like their interpretation of John Denver. Shaohe by our hotel was much better.
Overall impression of Lijiang? Should have been here 20 years ago. Nice people. Nice scenery. Extremely nice hotel. Cool little town. But not a wow.
From Lijiang, we drove out towards Shangri La. One the way we stopped at the First Bend of the Yangtze. There is a corner of Yunnan where the edge of the Tibetan plateau has wrinkled up the mountains, and in three parallel valleys no more than 60 miles apart run the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Irrawaddy. These empty into the ocean thousands of miles apart. Above and below this point the Yangtze cuts through some very rugged mountains, but at the bend it sits in a wide valley.
The legendary Chinese commander Zhu Geliang crossed the Yangtze here, as did the Mongols. More recently the Red Army crossed here fleeing the Nationalist during the Long March. As a history and geography geek, I was thoroughly amused. We then went on to Tiger Leaping Gorge, so called because it is said a Tiger could leap across the gorge at its narrowest. The Yangtze, now flowing north, crashes through some of the most ferocious rapids imaginable. The only knock on this place is that it is about 200 steps from the parking lot down to the river, which means 200 back up -- at 7,000 feet elevation. Please note, you can opt to hike the other side for about 3 miles without so many steps, but the view is better from the Shangri La side.
The drive from Tiger Leaping Gorge to Shangri La is about 4 hours. The road is good and the scenery pleasant. The last hour or so is on the plateau. The map says you are in Yunnan, but culturally, this is Tibet. Our guide, who was Tibetan, described this area as one of the hubs of his Culture. The people mostly live by a mixture of farming (potatoes and barley) and herding (mostly yaks). My first surprise was the size of the houses. In most of China, housing is cramped and small. The Tibetan houses are huge! They are framed with huge logs the likes of which I did not know still existed in China, two floors with large balconies. I asked our guide and he said each one was for a family of no more than three or four people. Compare this to Shanghai where you are lucky to have a couple of hundred square feet of living space per person.
Again we stayed at a Banyan Tree Property, the Ringha. This may be the most unique property I have ever seen. It sits in a Tibetan village at the end of a long narrow valley overlooking a beautiful little river. The hotel itself is made up of maybe 20 or so Tibetan Houses that were purchased whole and transplanted here by the Banyan Tree company. Each unit is half of one of these houses. I estimated ours at about 3,000 square feet on two levels. Very intricate and detailed décor, very cool overall ambiance. VERY quiet at night. This is a place you would either love or hate. If you truly want to experience as different a life as you can imagine, immerse yourself in a different place and time, this would work. If you need a lot of stimulation, this is not your place. Oh, and it is at nearly 11,000 feet elevation and the minibar includes bottles of oxygen.
Lijiang sightseeing: I spent a morning in Songzalin Monastery on a private tour with a Tibetan Buddhist Guide. There were just the two of us and we could go at my pace, which given the altitude and the number of stairs, was fairly slow. But we visited just about every chapel in the monastery, and Peter explained in great detail the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Lamas.
We probably had a more open and frank discussion of the religion and politics of the region than we could have in Tibet proper. We then stopped in the old town of Shangri La, much of which was destroyed in a fire last year. We saw the reconstruction of the new old town and to visited a smaller temple that has the largest prayer wheel in the world.
In the afternoon, we visited Potatso National Park. By our standards, this is a tiny little park, but the idea of preserving the wilderness is fairly new in China. The park is only accessible by bus, and the stops include two very pretty alpine lakes. You can either walk the shoreline on a boardwalk or take a boat down the length of the lake. For someone who grew up at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, this was not stunning, but in the context of the modern China, it was pretty special. The bus also stops for a few moments at a place that overlooks a high altitude meadow that is the summer pasturage of the nomadic yak herders. It looked for all the world like Wyoming. All of the other passengers on the bus were domestic Chinese tourists; they had obviously never seen any place like this and were in awe of the natural beauty. And it seems the park is doing a very good job of trying to protect the environment by keeping everyone on the paths. There is even a bit of lip service to the Tibetans, the buses circle the park clockwise, which is the correct way to circle anything (temple, parks, mountains) in Tibet.
Overall impression of Shangri La. Not for everyone. The altitude is challenging, and this is not on the way to anywhere, except maybe Tibet proper. We are blessed with great natural beauty in our country, and this is a long way to go to see mountains and lakes. But it is special, and the impression will remain with me for a long time. If you, like I, travel to see just how different the world can be, then this might just be a place to consider.