Travel News

The real Shangri-La

Authentic travel experiences may be thin on the ground but, refreshingly, a trip to China’s Yunnan Province promises a truly sacred landscape where minority cultures rule among its many awesome natural attractions.

By Rob Ingram
So here we are at last in the Shangri-La of the yak and the lama. The 'single-l' lama, that is. The mystical Tibetan-Buddhist legend of Shangri-La has somehow inspired such earthly paradises as the Shangri-La Beach Cottages in Rarotonga and the Shangri-La Strip Club in Tampa, Florida, both somewhat restrained in their Utopian ideals. But this is the real McCoy - Shangri-La County in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China's Yunnan Province.
Yunnan is the sort of endangered ethnic experience travel scribes recommend with reluctance. While Westernisation is well into its Long March through the better-known areas of China, Yunnan still fascinates with absorbing local cultures and lifestyles. It is home to many of China's minority nationalities, all of whom maintain their own religion, customs, food and festivals. With no-one better at capitalism than the Communists, they've quickly twigged to the commercial potential of minorities tourism.
Our Yunnan adventure begins in Lijiang, where we assemble with Abercrombie & Kent's China specialist Gerald Hatherly. Yunnan is located in the south-west part of the country bordered by Tibet, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. In the south, it has borders with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). Lijiang is the base of the Naxi minority, who number close to 300,000 in Yunnan and Sichuan. The Naxi are descended from Tibetan nomads and lived until recently in matriarchal families, property being passed through the youngest female child. There being no such thing in their culture as female fidelity, few knew who their fathers were and all men were referred to by the Naxi word for 'uncle'. Travel being full of surprises, we find one or two of the more strident members of our party regard this as progressive.
In 1996, an earthquake caused massive destruction in Lijiang, including parts of the old town which dates back to the 13th century and has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Strolling through the restored part of town on the cobbled, willow-shaded street that flanks the canal, it appears that the Chinese Government has shown commendable attention to the preservation and conservation of this special place.
While some parts of the old town are very much 'new town', the character of the buildings is authentic. A maze of cobbled alleys is fronted by attractive houses, shops and restaurants featuring wooden uprights and beams almost Japanese in style. Too often, however, familiar credit card logos warn that Lijiang may be another case of be-quick or be-too-late. And, okay, I concede that it's churlish to begrudge the locals a stronger economy and an improved standard of living - even if the gulf between rich and poor is probably greater than ever.
At nearby Baisha village, a typical Naxi community, our band of New World pilgrims struggles with the realisation that the marketplace in which we stand was the capital of the Naxi Kingdom even before Kublai Khan made it part of his Yuan Empire in 1271. And with our complacency still shaken, we encounter Dr Ho Shixiu, spritely at 83 and still collecting medicinal herbs in the mountains with which to treat patients from around the world. Allergies or cancers, Dr Ho has letters, declarations, even Mayo Clinic acknowledgements, that his treatments are effective.
Whatever, from his cramped and gloomy little clinic in an ancient village, his story has made it to the cinema screen and to the pages of The New York Times and Reader's Digest and we leave clutching bags of his 'feel-good tea'. Dr Ho seems nearly as old and quite as colourful as Baisha's famous temple which dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and features mural panels that have survived from the 16th century.
Yunnan's natural attractions are no less dramatic than its history and culture - and indeed, its mountains and rivers are often intertwined with that history and culture. One of the many elements of Shangri-La's mystery is that it is the birthplace of rivers and lakes. Originating on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, the mighty Yangtze flows southwards into Diqing and down through Yunnan.
As we travel north from Lijiang to Shangri-La County and Zhongdian, the Yangtze and its tributaries keep reappearing, each time with greater drama. This culminates in the awesome spectacle of Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Jinsha River thunders through a spectacular ravine 3900 metres deep and, in parts, just 30 metres wide. And it's not just the scenery that's breathtaking. Yunnan rises like a flight of steps from east to west; the most fascinating region, Zhongdian (Gyalthang to the Khampa Tibetans), is at an altitude of 3200 metres. If headaches and shortness of breath don't remind you that this is seriously high, oxygen canisters in the hotel rooms will. Most affected are tourists who fly in, but even with the acclimatisation afforded by the drive up from Lijiang, some members of our group suffer symptoms of altitude sickness. (It should also be said that some feel invigorated - or maybe it was just a close encounter with Shangri-La's legendary sense of enlightened consciousness.)
At the far western border of Yunnan, bisected by the eastern extension of the Himalayas, peaks rise to more than 6000 metres. The new Qinghai-Tibet train - a 48-hour rail odyssey across the roof of the world - supplies oxygen to each of its carriages through its airconditioning system and a personal supply of extra oxygen under every seat.
Zhongdian is the northern frontier of Yunnan and, as Gyalthang, is the ancestral home of the Khampa Tibetans. People of great pride, presence and integrity, they are descended from the warriors of old Tibet and are skilled horsemen. There was much celebration that our arrival coincided with a horse festival. I now have reasonable suspicion that everyone's arrival here coincides with a horse festival, but race day in Zhongdian is not to be missed. Horsemen in layers of colourful clothing line up on spindly ponies and thrash them over three laps of a racetrack constructed of equal parts of river shingle and discarded cigarette butts - probably those of the jockeys.
Their riding style and life expectancy hopes don't have much in common, the devil-may-care attitude no doubt shaped in the days when winners paid no tax for a year. And to supercharge the excitement, the last lap of each race is marked by loudspeakers erupting into the stampede theme from television's Bonanza.
This fascinating city can also awe the visitor on a slightly more spiritual note with a visit to the huge Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan and a sombre reminder of less serene times. Once home to more than 1200 monks, the monastery was built in the 17th century but was destroyed by radicals during the Cultural Revolution of 1949. Today, its restoration is almost complete. With its dramatic golden pagoda peaks blazing in the afternoon sun, it's hard to imagine anything in the global sightseeing gallery more likely to freeze-frame the tourist in his tracks.
The monastery has a commanding view over the plain on which the city is located. Gateway city and administrative capital of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture that covers the north-western corner of Yunnan province, Zhongdian features a picturesque 'old town' quarter and vibrant market activity. While not overtly gregarious, the locals crowd into the town square after dark most evenings to dance to popular folk tunes. It's a sort of high plains hoe-down that proceeds in orderly fashion around the square with the restrained abandon of dance partners who haven't ent-irely forgotten that, 30 years ago, they'd be risking their lives for perpetuating Tibetan culture.
Today, as everywhere I guess, there's good news and bad. In a sensible move to preserve the character of the region, Zhongdian now boasts an education centre, where tourists can learn more about Khampa Tibetan culture. Gyalthang Dzong Hotel and the luxury Banyan Tree Ringha in little Hong Po Village on the outskirts of the city are largely operated by Khampa Tibetans.
In the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, critics are less than happy about the likelihood of the new rail link ending Tibet's cultural isolation. A migration of Han Chinese from overpopulated regions could make Tibetans a minority in their own capital. But Shangri-La County has so far managed to preserve its charm and fascination.
As a product, the Abercrombie & Kent Roof of the World tour scores highly, both in terms of itinerary and impeccable guiding. It also offers something less tangible and more important - the ability to bring out the spirit of adventure in its group members. And in its partnership with the Banyan Tree Resort Group, it brings off the nigh impossible - high adventure with a decadent bathroom. The new Banyan Tree Lijiang features 55 villas expressing the most attractive elements of Naxi architecture and interior design. All have a north-east aspect offering inspirational views of the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which dominates the landscape.
Banyan Tree also has a property at Ringha, where each guest lodge is an authentic Tibetan house painstakingly dismantled and transplanted in the valley. The entire mountain resort radiates ethnic Tibetan rustic character, as does its setting amid a primitive pine-forest dotted with wild orchids, azaleas and rhododendrons. To enjoy the setting to its fullest, there are pony treks through an unspoiled environment itself sacred to the Tibetans.
The mythical land of Shangri-La was created by novelist James Hilton in 1933, as the secret valley in his book, Lost Horizon. The story and subsequent Hollywood hit, however, were inspired by Shambala, a hidden paradise from Tibetan legend.
"Although Shambala is said to exist," says today's Dalai Lama, "people cannot see it or communicate with it in an ordinary way. Some people say it is located in another world; others that it is an ideal land, a place of the imagination. Some say it was a real place which can't now be found. Whatever the truth, the search for Shambala traditionally begins as an outer journey that becomes a journey of inner exploration and discovery."
Shangri-La County may not be the repository of all the wisdom of the human race, as it was in Hilton's novel. But it scores highly as a sacred landscape capable of inspiring stories itself. A permanently happy land isolated from the outside world? Let's hope so.
  • undefined: Rob Ingram