Shangri-La – Paradise Found?

From Litang we stop advancing west and point south towards Shangri-La, a place of almost mythical fame among travelers. In a few days we should be enjoying the subtropical climate of Yunnan, but as you may have gathered by now, we are still struggling to find a snowless track. It was foolish to dive into Tibet armed only with two bicycles, and flimsy clothing. Around 10 km from town, the road climbs to 4400m through a gorge wide enough for Litang to look like a worn-out Lego. Wind is ambushing our ears with crescendos that suddenly collapse to chasms of silence and massive tectonic scar rises from both sides. I know it’s just a blink in Earth’s history, but to me, this mountain is forever. I fear it, even as I bask in its beauty.

The needle sharp freezing rain is just an hour away. We put on everything that we have, except for the extra pair of undies. Our bodies still bear the brunt of the other days and all twenty fingers and toes become numb fast. The road to Xiangcheng County and the virgin forests and big gorges on the way to Zhongwenshui seemed promising, but we find ourselves in total nightmare. At Tu Er Shan pass (4696m) the wind is just picking up. The pass, like all across Tibet, is devoid of trees and covered in huge boulders and colourful prayer flags.

To we make it to Xiangcheng we hitchhike a shared mini-van. They cram us on top of two Belgian travellers who are backpacking to Thailand. Good company for a night in town, where we all dine in a weirdly touristy joint. After a brief rest in what could well be a bordello, we reunite with the Belgians on the bus that sloshes to the top of Hai Zi Shan (4998m), and then further of Kuluke Shan (4708m). There’s even not as much snow as I’d though up here, only some frost, but the dam tires are frictionless on dirt. The rear slides back and forth, mud slurry flies, and the antiquated bus manages to lumber on. The driver keeps asking: “Where are you going? Shangri-La? But why not on motorbikes?” Damn good question, man.

Long story short, by third day we’re crossing into what is considered one of the most agriculturally rich and historically renegade Chinese provinces: Yunnan – The Land Beneath the Clouds. It is roughly the size of France and has borders with Vietnam and Laos to the south and Burma to the west, with internal frontiers separating it from Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. This distinctive location makes Yunnan the most culturally diverse area of People’s Republic and a place, as it’ll soon turn out, with extraordinary cuisine. The population here is only 50% Han Chinese, compared to 92% elsewhere. The rest is made up of 26 minority nationalities (China has 56).

In la la land

“In these days of wars and rumors of wars – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight? Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia…”

In 1933 James Hilton penned his classic novel “Lost Horizon”, which spoke of a mystical Tibetan Buddhist city and an earthly paradise cocooned from the outside world, where residents hardly aged and lived permanently happy. Since then ‘Shambhala’ or ‘Shangri -la’ have become synonymous with an idyllic place equally difficult to find as it is to leave. While adventurers starting searching for the real-life version of the Himalayan fountain of youth described in the book, a handful of places believed to have inspired it scrambled to patent the legendary name. The race was won in 2001 by the Chinese tourism authority. The name of an 1,300-year-old Tibetan hamlet and former stop on the ancient Tea Horse Road was swiftly changed from Dukezong to Shangri-La, and bam! a new tourist attraction was born.

So this is where we are. Frankly, after vagabonding in wonderful rural China and Tibet Kham for weeks, we are unimpressed. Except for the Old Town which is a jumble of twisting, narrow alleys paved with granite, Shangri-la has ways to go before reaching the utopia its name implies. There are no burly Litang swags and no Tibetan faces carved by wind lashes. The salesgirls who hand out idiosyncratic flyers about Tibetan culture are all unmistakably Han. At night, more Han women dressed in minority garb gather in the large public square to dance to blaring Sino-pop music in a scene that feels a bit contrived. With ongoing restoration projects on nearly every block, local authorities seem to have embraced the generic ‘build it and they will come’ approach. A few traditional houses have been saved from a planned demolition and the original wood beams and rammed-earth wall painstakingly restored. Some are given new life as shops, guesthouses and restaurants. Though most establishments lack patina, the souvenirs on sale are a bunch of generic crap and the constant hammering and drilling provide a detracting soundtrack to what could be a very special place.
– Are you guys hungry?
We have promised our companions that we’ll have them try some local food. But there are no yak carcasses hanging from ceilings. The signs advertise for gelato, New Zealand stake, imported wines and… wait a minute, yak cheese fondue? After a few beers with the Belgians, I don’t even care about this stuff anymore.

Winters in this mountainous region can be harsh, and many businesses close from November 30 to April 1. The first night we bunk in a rustic hostel, where it’s cold and empty, then we move to a chipper place. The doorman entreats us to return in the summer.
– Then Shangri-la’s a true Utopia. The hills and meadows are full of rare and beautiful flowers.
It continues to rain all morning, so we feel quite motivated to move our limbs. The northern edge of the new town is crowned by the Songzanlin Monastery (or Ganden Sumtseling Gompa), that bears a striking likeness to Tibet’s Potala Palace in the capital Lhasa. We cycle to the bus station and buy tickets. It’s 17 euros each, a normal price for China, where local tourism is booming, but forbidding, I imagine, for any Tibetan (there are no discounted rates for nationals).
We are soon gobsmacked by the image of twin gilded roofs under the bruised sky.Founded by the fifth Dali Lama in the 17th century and rebuilt in the 1980s after being ravaged during China’s Cultural Revolution, Songzanlin is still the most important Tibetan monastery in southwestern China and home to around 700 monks.

Shangri-la has an elevation of nearly 3,400 meters, and the monastery sits another 300m up, within a walled village. On the way we cycle past a group of Bai women. The 1679 structure rising against the decaying greens and browns of the landscape is composed of two lamaseries, Zhacang and Jikang. The complex is currently undergoing restoration. I hope that it is being done with humility and respect towards the original.

A glorious sun peeks through. Now we can see the entire place framed by empty horizons. The mountain, so crushing until minutes ago, has become an exclusion zone erected around a human house of gods.

A taxing flight of 146 steps leads to a wide terrace. Halfway to the top we came to a Qing Dynasty temple built for monks from the Naxi tribe. As we jolt our way further up, we are confronted to close-ups of Tibetan architecture vocabulary. Delicate woodwork. Striking colours. Ancient deities perched upon cobra snakes wrapped in gold. Both restraint, and flamboyance, building up into a concerto.

I pull the black yak fur curtain that obscures the gut of the lamasery and stumble on wood stairs that isolate the spaces reserved for monks. The symphony of unknown origin gets louder in my head.

Songzanlin Monastery. The main temple is dedicated to the Fifth Dalai Lama, and has two smaller sanctuaries on each side.

We enter, and walk in silence among Buddha statues as high as eight meters, that dwarf the cavernous space. Finding ourselves completely alone in this country of 1.6 billion people is surreal.
The altars next to the central assembly hall are deceptively decadent. Treasures glitter and the gilded murals depict battles that seem trapped in time in my head. But in all its richness the monastery remains… empty. A place waiting to be inhabited by experience… until the monks begin to pray.

Growing up in impoverished communist Romania I used to think that I knew what ‘nothing’ looked like well: empty shelves in stores, winter nights without electricity and with barely a radio signal. And then I traveled into the wild of Africa and I learned about the many other kinds of nothingness. I experienced hunger and thirst, the dead air of Sahara, the sense of being nowhere. Compared to such materialistic vacancy, the nothingness of Songzanlin Monastery appears almost ethereal, if not of a divine nature. These monks with shaved heads and blood-orange robes hold on to no earthly possessions. Their religion is their life.

Monks, workers and visitors could have been photoshopped into the same picture by a joker. Some appear free to run away from “here”, and run they do. The Buddhists are aware that existence is not stuck to the physical. Too bad we aren’t.

Tibetan prayer flags adorn the inside and outside of the building. Some worn, some immaculate, left alongside to remind that everything is part of an ongoing cycle and that change is inherent to all life. As Medok, the owner of Potala Inn, told me in Litang, “when wind blows, they send a message for peace and health to all human beings.”

As we climb down through the village on a sinuous sliver of a path, we see huge wooden racks drying the last of the hay and barley.

In his book, James Hilton described the lost paradise as a place where the air has a “deep anaesthetising tranquility”. This could be it.

Ok, a couple more photos of this place and we move on. I promise.

Late in the afternoon we’re back in Shangri-La, reunited with our Belgian pals by the iconic 21-meter-tall, 60-ton prayer wheel of the Guishan Temple, which takes at least ten people to turn. In Buddhist tradition, prayer wheels carry the mantra of Om Mani Padme Hum. Turning them is believed to spread compassion in all directions. It’s strange to think that this golden cylinder would be the only bit of Shangri-La to survive.


Since we’ve been there, Yunnan’s Shangri-La is no more. I shall regret forever wasting our time there to bicker about architecture this and authenticity that, instead of taking more photos. On the 10th of January 2014 a blaze ripped through the Tibetan Old Town, razing as many as 250 houses within 10 hours and turning many families’ belongings to ashes. All reports point to a tragic accident: the fire prevention system costing more than $1-million had been shut down to prevent pipes from bursting in the below-freezing temperatures and the fire trucks were unable to penetrate the narrow alleys of the old town. As the area has been under pressure by developers for some time, this fire will be a gamechanger in the debate of economical growth versus preservation of tradition. You can see some brutal photos of the aftermath here and here and here.

The first picture of the prayer wheel was taken with the phone. The second was taken by an AP reporter, a few months later.