Executive summary by darmansjah
If Shangri-La really did exist in physical space, it wouldn’t take much imagination to place it in the Meili mountains. At the start of the fifth day of my journey, I look out on five colossal snow-covered peaks-part of the Maili Snow Mountain Range-in the dim dawn light from the Songstsam Meili lodge. Jia is warming her hands by a coal brazier. She pints to the highest peak. “Kwagebo, a sacred mountain to Tibetan Buddhis.”
Its grandeur makes me think of Karakal, the icy peak in Hilton’s Lost Horizon: “It was an almost perfect cone of snow..so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all.”
The Meili range marks the northernmost pint of my trip; on the far side of Kawagebo lies Tibet, where grandfather Baird also roamed. Fortified with a breakfast of barley pancakes and wild honey, Jia and I take leave of the friendly lodge staff and head south toward the Upper Mekong Valley, which will serve as our corridor back to the urban centers. Our road takes us past an overlook punctuated with 13 gleaming stupas, one for each of the Meili peaks. It will be our last unobstructed view of the sawtooth mountains rising white and brilliant. We duck into a kiosk for incense and pine boughs to placate Kawagebo. As I slide my offerings into a ceremonial oven set beside the stupas, I say a prayer for my grandfather, hoping he found the inner peace he was looking for in this remote mountain realm.
Two days later I bid farewell to Jia an continue on to the cobblestoned town of Lijiang, once a celebrated stop on the caravan route linking the tea plantations of southern Yunnan with the cities of Lhasa and Kathmandu to the west. Its ancient Naxi architecture and stone bridges crossing a lattice of canals have made Lijiang’s Old Town a World Heritage site and an ever more popular destination for Chinese tourists. But I’ve come to pay homage to the eccentric Austrian-American botanist and explorer Joseph Rock, a recluse who lived for nearly 30 years in the tiny village of Yuhu, about a half hour’s drive out of town.
Did those reports also act as a trumpet call for my grandfather? I think of a letter that Baird had written home from these mountains, telling of his recent purchase of pistols and hinting at the dangers that lay ahead. The lost tribe he sought may have inhabited an idyllic community of harmony and longevity; navigating the broken landscape was another matter.
On our final afternoon together, Jia had quipped that she was taking me to a “lost tribes” village, the sort of place grandfather Baird would have gotten wind of. Our vehicle followed a track carved along the wall of a gorge, the roar of the creek below us drowning out the gear-grinding ascent. The track had leveled off at a ten-foot high wooden cylinder spinning inside a scarlet pagoda. “It’s a prayer wheel,” Jia had said. “The water makes it spin.” A narrow ditch was funneling rushing water beneath the wheel, where small paddles kept the auspicious symbols of the Buddha in constant motion.
I stood by that relic from the deep past, when our forebears still felt awe at such simple things as the changing of the seasons or the blooming of a flower. A time almost, but not quite, lost. A soft bell pinged with each revolution of the wheel and blended with the laughter of children from a schoolhouse up the hill. The sun was beginning to set, throwing long shadows across the glen.
I cast back to my very first night in Yunnan, when I sat with Baima by the roaring fire.
“I believe that lost tribes could still exist in these places,” he had told me.
As I turned toward our vehicle, it occurred to me that he may have been right, that a lost tribe could be just beyond the ridge, in the next valley over. And maybe, just maybe, my grandfather is there with them, having discovered in this mysterious land the harmony and the unity in which he so desperately wanted to believed.
LAND OF PEAKS, valleys, and monasteries, Yunnan is home the largest number of ethnic groups in China. The gateway towns of Shangri-La and Lijiang showcase area traditions and cultures, but many interesting sites lie in the countryside.
When To Go? Yunnan is known for its localized climates. Shangri-La is best visited from late spring through summer, when days warm into the 80s F. Kunming, to the south, has been dubbed “spring city” for its mild climate year-round. Regional temperatures can dip, however, so bring warm clothing.
Where To Sleep? Songtsam Lodges operates five cozy properties in Yunnan in a variety of settings, including Shangri-La, that reflect the region’s diversity. Travelers may stay at one lodge or choose a circuit package that visits multiple lodges with guides for an easy introduction to this fairly remote and rugged part of China.
Laomadian Lodge, in the town of Shaxi, offers rooms in a gracefully converted inn and stable on the ancient Tea Horse Caravan Road. Its Karma Café dishes up regional fare-and brownies. Another interesting option in Shaxi is the evocative Olde Theatre Inn, an eco ldoge that occupies a restored courtyard building complex.
Zen Garden Hotel, in the historic town of Lijiang, mixes antique furniture with modern conveniences and will arrange tours to local Naxi sights.
What To See? Shangri-La, formerly Zhongdian, is both a county and a town; attractions include Yunnan’s largest Tibetan Buddhist lamasery, Songzanlin Monastery, known for its remarkable frescoes and its resemblance to Tibet’s multi-tiered Potala Palace.
The venerable trading city of Shaxi, with its peaked wood roofs, ranks as one of the most authentic caravan town along the storied tea route; its Friday market deals in everything from livestock to tea.
Visitors flock to Lijiang to see its old town, a World Heritage site. Also a highlight; performances by the local Naxi Orchestra, which plays nightly.
Near the scenic mountain village of Shiyi lies Dongshulin Monastery, home to monks of the yellow hat sect-and artfully restored prayer halls. This part of Yunnan is famed for its black pottery, which is baked directly in a pit fire. Master potter Sun Nou Qiling crafts his black pitchers, pots, and more in the village of Tong Dui.
What To Read? Forgotten Kingdom, by Peter Goullart (1955), is a memoir by a Russian-born explorer who advised Chinses industry in the 1930s and ‘40s, and gathered his insightsabout both Chinses and Yunnanese culture and thought in this must-read volume.
Oen of the most complete fossil deposits ever found is in Chengjiang, outside Yunnan’s capital, Kunming.
Yunnan is considered china’s mushroom capital, with some 600 mushroom species, many edible.
Women rule in segments of Naxi society, thanks to an old matriarchal tradition.
Peak Performance “A ritual in the Meili mountains is to rise early to see Kawagebo, Yunnan’s most sacred peak,” says photographer Michael Yamashita. “Usually, Kawagebo hides in a sea of clouds, so a photographer needs luck. I have visited three times and snagged shots on each trip. This is my favorite, with the first rays of sun highlighting the snowy peak and leaving the foreground and clouds in shadow.”
Kawagebo, ringed by clouds.