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On the Road to Shangri-La

In the rugged reaches of the Tibetan frontier, the author makes a journey to paradise and beyond.

In the dull half-light of early morning, the Ganden Sumsanling monastery calls to mind a Georges Braque canvas, a sketchy Cubist outline of red-roofed chapels and living quarters flanked by a treeless land that is scarred, scratched, and pitted. Stretching out before the temple's golden peak is a dried-up lake dotted with yaks grazing lazily among squat ponies of Mongol stock. Smoke rises from empty houses. A Tibetan mastiff tugs at its metal chain.

The scene is underwhelming, almost menacing, until the sun appears, its light seeping into the landscape. The dog's bark is replaced by the deep thud of a yak-skin drum, the repetitive chants of morning prayers, bells, cymbals, and a softly blown conch. Tibetan schoolchildren with scabby cheeks wander down the lane, their backpacks dragging on the ground.

At the monastery's gates, pretty girls in lurid polyester—a cheap pastiche of tribal costume—affix scarlet pom-poms to their goats' pubescent horns in anticipation of tour buses. Inside a soot-dark kitchen, a monk named Lobsang Gyaltsen watches over the monastery's food. Others help—Khado, Tenzin, and a shorn layman with an awkward hunch. In the assembly hall, an old man counts soiled notes beneath melting butter lamps. On the uppermost floor, the high lama sits cross-legged before a murky window. Today, as every day, Kesar Rimpoche will play host to Chinese tourists who come to peer into Ganden Sumsanling's sunless interiors. He will listen to local Tibetans seeking his divinations, wearing down the parquet floor with their devout prostrations. Outside, men in Mao-style hats haul up buckets of water, constructing monastery walls in the traditional style atop the old foundations.

The Chinese call this place Shangri-La. It has been the official name of the town and surrounding countryside since 2001, the outcome of a peculiar nationwide competition in which various counties throughout China vied for the designation. The appeal of the name for this remote portion of Yunnan Province was obvious: Commercial logging had been banned in 1998 after devastating flooding in the lower reaches of the Yangtze, and the local economy needed a boost. A colorful new identity to inspire the imaginations of tourists seemed just the thing.

Formerly known as Zhongdian in Chinese and Gyalthang in Tibetan, Shangri-La is on the frontier of Tibet, in the Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is bordered to the east by Sichuan Province and to the west by the Hengduan Shan, the final crumple of the vast Himalayas, which curl like a comma around the top of Myanmar. The region first opened to tourists less than a decade ago, and today it is one of China's most compelling destinations. Travel here isn't always easy, as I discover on a 300-mile, ten-day journey from the town of Lijiang, through Shangri-La, and on to the village of Yupeng. Hotels are generally poor and roadside conveniences vile. But for a certain breed of traveler, the discomforts matter little. "Shangri-La," a word that compresses so many imagined paradises, remains a place rich with a different kind of promise.

Our party of three—photographer Ken Griffiths, his assistant, Lucy Williams-Wynn, and me—made our arrangements through the Yueliang Wan Travel Company, a Shangri-La tour operator headed by Uttara Sarkar Crees. A consummate linguist with formidable experience in Tibet, Sarkar Crees came recommended by Himalayan experts from Hong Kong to Kathmandu. Her company took care of all our flights, ground transportation, and accommodations, and provided guides, porters, and translators. A key tenet of Sarkar Crees's business is to put resources back into this largely forgotten region, where Buddhism is being resuscitated and monasteries that were badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution are being rebuilt.

The 17th-century Ganden Sumsanling, under reconstruction since the early eighties, is something of a star attraction here. It played a major role in the region's winning the competition for the Shangri-La name. To be considered, counties had to show a connection with the earthly paradise that British author James Hilton dubbed Shangri-La in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon (later made into a film by Frank Capra). In the book, four survivors of an airplane crash are sequestered in a Tibetan monastery in the fictional Valley of the Blue Moon, where its denizens live for centuries, acquiring happiness and knowledge in blissful solitude beneath an icy peak the author called Mount Karakal. "The air's a bit snappy at first," says Hilton's American protagonist, Henry Barnard, "but you can't have everything. And it's nice and quiet for a change. Every fall I go down to Palm Beach for a rest cure, but they don't give it to you, those places—you're in the racket just the same. But here I guess I'm having just what the doctor ordered, and it certainly feels grand to me. I'm on a different diet, and my broker can't get me on the telephone."

Surprisingly, Hilton never visited China. Perhaps he pillaged the records of early 20th-century botanists, such as the Austrian American Joseph Rock, or accounts written by the British seed collector Frank Kingdon-Ward. Maybe he even found other, unpublished diaries. Hilton never let on, giving rise to one of the great myths of modern times: that there exists a magical place somewhere in the wilds of western China known as Shangri-La.

The landscape here certainly is awe-inspiring. On the edge of Shangri-La County, behind the weather-torn Baima Mountain, three of Asia's great rivers—the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween—flow in parallel. Only 50 miles lie between them, shadowed by the vast and sacred Mount Kawakarpo. In these creases lie ancient forests, soporific meadows, glacial waterfalls, and small Tibetan villages. This extraordinary slither of wilderness, which claims the richest biodiversity in the Northern Hemisphere, transcends paradisiacal clichés of white sand, blue seas, and decadent spa treatments.

Any journey to the Shangri-La region should really begin in Lijiang, which is conveniently accessed via a short flight from the international airport in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. A former walled market town with canals, stone bridges, and picture-book ethnic Naxi houses, Lijiang was sensitively reconstructed after a 1996 earthquake and has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This is sepia China, with upturned pagoda-style roofs and streets strung with red lanterns that cast pools of color on cobblestones smoothed by the footfalls of passing centuries. In outlying fields, stooped villagers gather wheat, apples, pears, and peaches. In the Old Town, there are no cars. Two-story homes are built around cool courtyards, where swallows sing in cages that hang from the tree peonies and flowering crab apples. In the shallow streams that thread between the houses, children play and fish.

The Naxi's matriarchal society is disintegrating—you have to travel to remote villages around the Lugu Lake to find the Moso women, who rule the households, take no husbands, and have no word for "father." But there are other, accessible moments of authenticity: the spicy cuisine, the tranquil Ancient Inn, the jewels, silverware, antiques, and textiles. The Naxi retain the world's only active hieroglyphic writing system. They adhere to their shamanistic Dongba religion. They also show conspicuous respect for their painters and musicians, including Xuan Ke, a local celebrity and founder of the Ancient Naxi Music Orchestra. The 25 artists—mostly old men with long white beards who play lyrelike instruments, wooden flutes, and gongs—perform nightly in Lijiang. At the back stands a tall youth with wild eyes and a haunting baritone. Their repertoire features songs that predate Kublai Khan by more than half a century.

"This is the place people have dreamed of, from the book and from the movie," Xuan says of Shangri-La, which he sees as a symbol of longing and possibility. "People are searching for a new world—no money, no power, no politics."

Traveling northward from Lijiang toward Shangri-La, I am wont to agree. As the road climbs through golden fields of corn and purple plateaus covered in azalea, the landscape acquires an emptiness that I find intensely affecting. It's not unlike the experience of seeing the ice of Antarctica for the first time, or the sage-green steppes of Mongolia. We pause at Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Yangtze squeezes through a narrow cleft, and listen to the thunderous river that supplies water to one-third of China's population. I can see tiny crescents of green sculpted by Tibetan farmers clinging to walls of rock, my eye following the mule tracks that crisscross valleys and snake over passes.

Stopping at Shigu, or Stone Drum village, I see the Yangtze make its first dramatic turn. This is where Kublai Khan crossed the river and where Mao rallied for support on his epic Long March in 1936. We visit the Ringha Valley and its temple, where Phuntsok Jamtsen, a young monk, minds goats, pigs, and chickens left as offerings by itinerant Buddhists. He looks a bit like Saint Francis of Assisi in a maroon robe, accompanied by a cook carrying a flyswatter made from rags. As the wind picks up, their figures disappear in a whipping mass of prayer flags—pink, white, and orange—strung between the pines.

This is not the stuff of five-star travel, the obsession with the speed of room service and the thread count of the Frette linens. It is something different, more enriching, if not always perfect. It touches the soul. I'm not alone: It would seem that an increasing number of people seek to engage with wilderness, to discover places seldom visited by tourists. During our journey I meet the CEO of a major merchant bank, traveling with his family and alive with tales of their adventures. But the only other foreigners I come across are two disgruntled Americans.

Perhaps they are unhappy because they haven't ventured beyond the official town of Shangri-La and its two main attractions: the Ganden Sumsanling monastery and the Gyalthang Dzong Hotel. The latter is managed by Colours of Angsana, part of the Banyan Tree group. That there is now a quality hotel here will do much to put the region on the map for high-end visitors. Leaving behind the hotel's silk-draped beds and imported wines isn't easy, but I want to find something else, something closer to the visions fueled by Hilton's fiction. And so we head north on the Yunnan-Tibet Highway, toward the hidden valley of Yupeng, where, I am told, I might find my own personal paradise.

The five-hour drive to the town of Deqen takes in fast-changing vistas: another brutal bend in the Yangtze, a delicate curve in the Mekong, the panorama of Mount Kawakarpo flanked by skeletal white peaks, in front of which stand stone stupas wrapped in smoke from incense. Then we cross the highest pass at Dsebo—altitude sickness can be a significant issue after you leave Lijiang—where seminomadic Tibetans scour for caterpillar fungus, a fantastically expensive natural medicine that is mixed with tea. "Eat this and you will live forever," they tell me.

A few hours north of Deqen, our party stops on the banks of the Mekong to engage five horses and eight porters to help make the push to our final destination. It's a tough daylong trek from the river to the foot of Mount Metsomo, next to Kawakarpo. The route is precipitous, stony, and narrow. The air, which is deceptively thin, induces a strange tranquillity of mind. It's like entering a classical Chinese painting: Bearded moss hangs from ancient trees with roots clinging to iron-streaked rocks. There is the scent of mimosa.

The higher we climb, the older the woods become. Birdsong comes and goes, replaced by the talk of four passing monks. At the summit of a ridge, we ride through prayer flags left by pilgrims en route to Kawakarpo. Then we start to descend, into the Shangri-La of my deepest imagining.

It is a green, green place, enclosed by wooded mountains, backed by snow, ice, and insurmountable ash-gray cliffs. An avalanche booms like thunder above the clouds. In the village, bisected by a glacial river, old Tibetan-style houses are carved into the valley floor. There are fields of velvet grass and meadows overrun with flowers. There is a waterfall, a natural orchard with gnarled black junipers, a temple edged with anemones, and white-and-red and turquoise butterflies. A guardian nun stands at the temple door.

The only noise comes from barking dogs, children playing, and bells jangling on a caravan of mules. There are no other tourists save six Chinese. We stay in the homes of Tibetan farmers. None of the TVs seem to work, although electricity arrived five years prior. The beds are hard and the coffee is awful. But the food—Sichuan spices, local vegetables, warm bread, bowls of steaming rice—is spectacular.

In the early morning i venture down to a stone stupa across the river, where I find Lhanzom making her daily circumambulations, her back bent and her legs wrapped in wool. She is not the oldest person in the village—that's Azu, who is 87 and almost completely deaf. Lhanzom was born in Yupeng in 1919, two years before the founding of the Chinese Communist party. She has only left the valley twice—once to circle Kawakarpo and once to make a pilgrimage to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa (so sacred is this place that when a visitor from there came to Yupeng, the villagers would lie down and let the person enter the valley by walking across their backs). Now, says Lhanzom, she is waiting to die.

We sit and talk via an interpreter. I ask her about an airplane crash. Yes, she says, an American plane came down in a village over the ridge when she was a child. The place is called Meyong and it is roughly a three-hour trek from the road. A friend, Dorjee Phuntsok, with whom I later speak, says he has seen the fuselage. Could it be that Hilton's story is true?

I ask Lhanzom if she thinks her valley an earthly paradise. Looking blankly, she responds, "Shangri-La? I haven't heard of this place. What does it mean?" Leaning on her walking stick, she slowly resumes her circles around the stupa, talking to herself or to her god, fiddling with a strand of coral prayer beads.

Tours of the Shangri-La region can be booked through the Yueliang Wan Travel Company (86-887/822-7838; uttara@guoxun.net).