Mountain paradise Discovering Shangri-La

| January 16, 2014

In the Chinese province of Yunnan, Susan Griffith finds a colourful mountain paradise.

Arch Bridge & Pavillion, Lijiang

The peaceful bougainvillea-filled courtyards and canal-side lanes of Lijiang’s old town are a million miles from the dazzling lights and smog of Shanghai and Beijing. I have fled the clamour of China’s megacities to explore Yunnan: the lesser-explored far-western Chinese province, rising steeply up to the Tibetan plateau set high amongst Himalayan peaks.

Known as the City of Eternal Spring for its year-round temperate climate, the laid-back city of Kunming is Yunnan’s provincial capital. On the northern side of town, a traditional Chinese pleasure island is named Green Lake Park – no doubt after the lotus plants sprawling across the numerous small lakes, picturesquely linked by arched bridges and causeways.

It’s a lovely sight; early in the morning and at dusk, impromptu dance and exercise classes spring up. I pause to listen as a trio of musicians practise in a bandstand with an aspiring opera diva, then watch a senior citizen purposefully shake her body in stylised movements towards the water, as if shedding her cares.

Near Kunming, the surreal landscape of Shilin Stone Forest is one of the world’s geological wonders. Within a massive through narrow vertical defiles, peering through natural peepholes and winding among the open-air stalagmites. It is fun trying to identify shapes in the weathered stones, like cloud watching: there’s a grazing anteater, some shark’s teeth, the profile of a scowling old man. Some of the giant pinnacles around Sword Peak Lake have been hacked cleanly off by the tremors of an earthquake, as if sliced through by a huge sword. Against the grey rocks, the bright colours of the costumes worn by representatives of several ethnic peoples are startlingly vivid.

The largest ethnic group in northern Yunnan is the Naxi (pronounced Nashi) centred on picturesque Lijiang, the vibrant World Heritage-listed old town of cobbled lanes that cross murmuring streams and channels lined with graceful bending willows. Elderly Naxi women shuffle past wooden houses, wicker baskets strapped to their foreheads or pushing bicycles and carts heavily laden with handicrafts and foodstuffs. A popular spot for urban Chinese tourists, you only have to walk a few minutes to leave the throng of tourism behind. Instead you enter a world of timeless local life: a young woman washing vegetables at Baimalong Pond; an ancient woman in a temple squinting at Buddhist scriptures; families feasting together around a table at the end of the evening; or a child prodding a turtle in a tank to the approval of his mother (turtles bring luck).

Just behind the elegant Crowne Plaza hotel is the hustling Zhonghyi Market, selling souvenirs and snacks, including (for the brave) the local speciality yak-head soup. In fact Lijiang is a wonderful destination for the hungry traveller, with stalls doing a roaring trade in street foods ranging from flash-fried noodles to barbecued locusts. Pop into the local restaurants and you will see large glass demijohns of home-made liquors distilled from local fruit and fungi.

At night ancient Naxi musicians gather in a concert hall in Lijiang to create haunting and mysterious sounds on their gongs and cymbals, flutes and stringed instruments. This musical tradition came close to annihilation during the Cultural Revolution when the orchestra’s leader Xuan Ke was imprisoned for 21 years. The show is both a cultural celebration and a visual treat, not least for the people-watching opportunities it affords. Another performance recalls the thousand years during which porters and ponies laboured through Lijiang on the perilous Tea Horse Road: the path that bales of tea travelled en route to India via Tibet or Burma. This romantic ‘wild west’ history and character of the journey is celebrated in a theatrical open-air extravaganza called Lijiang Impression. A huge choreographed cast of local people and horses swarm over a brilliant set incorporating a switchback path, which on a clear day seems to be part of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range behind.

One of the trading places on the Tea Horse Road is the village of Shigu, 70km west of Lijiang on the first sharp bend of the Jinsha River, an upper tributary of the Yangtze. Every three days, a fascinating and authentic market takes place for local people (rather than for tourists). The seamstress, cobbler, blacksmith, even the dentist and doctor offer their services from rickety tables that line the steep street, as well as sellers of vegetables and live piglets. Most colourful of all is the wizened pharmacist, looking more like a witch doctor as he peddles pulverised roots and giant dried tree fungi.

Following the river north, the scenery soon becomes even more sublime. The full power and majesty of Tiger Leaping Gorge can be experienced at Qiaotou by descending the 619 steps to the churning waters of the fabled Yangtze. Here the river is funnelled, bucking and roaring, into a narrow channel a full two kilometres below the rocky clifftops: a stunning site even deeper than the Grand Canyon. From a platform above the raging torrent, you can see a huge slab of rock in the middle, which according to legend was used as a stepping stone by a magical tiger bounding across the river as he escaped from hunters.

Penetrate deeper and higher towards Tibet, and the mythical land of Shangri-La beckons. “Conway submitted to a rich and growing enchantment... A deeper repose overspread him as if the spectacle were as much for the mind as for the eye,” so wrote James Hilton exactly 80 years ago in his novel Lost Horizon, describing his hero’s response to a bewitching mountain fortress he called Shangri-La. It was not just the physical beauty that captivated, but the sense of spiritual peace and harmony.

Among several contenders to be identified as the official fictional Himalayan paradise immortalised in Lost Horizon, Zhongdian in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Deqen was the victor, and has called itself Shangri-La since 2001.

This is not quite so cynical a move as, say, Huddersfield renaming itself Arcadia, because when the sun glints off the surrounding peaks and the golden-roofed Song Zan Lin Monastery is reflected in the small lake at its base, it is easy to convince yourself you are in a mountain paradise. A high altitude one though: on the first day it is best to take it easy, sipping local Tibetan ginger tea as a remedy for the possible side-effects.

The boutique Songstam Retreat hotel, a few kilometres outside town, is furnished with handcrafted wooden pieces and actively engages with the Tibetan community training and employing them. Tibetan villagers, many with bright pink headgear, come from all around to participate in the kora, the clockwise perambulation of the monastery walls, as they spin their prayer wheels. If you join them, you may be greeted with the all-purpose “Tashi delek”, roughly translated as “Blessings and good luck”. At the summit, Song Zan Lin Monastery has been beautifully restored with carved and painted windows and allegorical Buddhist paintings. Maroon-robed monks aged from seven to 90 keep the flickering butter lamps burning as they chant from ancient scrolls. Looking down onto the dramatic valley below as chanting and incense fills the air, it is impossible not to share Hilton’s sense of enchantment.

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