Perhaps the essence of travel is discovering if your dreams are real. We conjure images of far-off locales based on what we read, hear or desire and spend a lot of time and effort searching to discover if the vision we see in our head can be matched by any form of reality. While most don’t see past a warm sea, gentle breeze, swaying hammock and slightly bronzed skin, a few have more vivid visions of their own personal paradise. Some travelers have more advanced imaginations and maybe their travel palettes have a few more additional colors than the average housewife visiting Hawaii has.
Throughout history, some of these ‘destinations’ have become legendary. Whether they actually existed or not, their descriptions have driven many an intrepid soul to follow their calling, no matter the cost or hardship that may have had to be endured.
Countless conquistadors spent their lives searching for El Dorado, the city of gold and untold riches, some undoubtedly meeting perilous fates during their journey. Although it may have been just myth, the explorer Ponce de Leon will always be associated with the search for the eternal life provided by the Fountain of Youth. Whether just in fictional accounts or not, the Holy Grail and it’s promise of eternal abundance led many Arthurian knights on fruitless journeys. While probably based only on legend, many an ancient mariner must have spent their nights on watch keeping one eye out for the utopian paradise of Atlantis.
A more modern destination that may only exist in the writer’s imagination is the Tibetan city of Shangri La. Described by British author James Hilton in his 1933 book “Lost Horizons’ as a mystical valley high in the isolated mountains of the Himalayas and populated by a harmonious people who lived happy and nearly immortal lives. The name has now become synonymous with any utopian paradise where people might find eternal satisfaction. The novel was such a success that many areas have claimed to be the inspiration for the book’s location. China even officially renamed the city of Zhongdian in 1997 to take advantage of the book’s notoriety.
This Chinese Shangri La is located at nearly 11,000 feet in the northern mountains of Yunnan Province. With towering mountains surrounding a valley, friendly people and an ancient lamasery high atop a nearby peak, this version of Shangri La seemed to be a good destination for the second 3 weeks of our tour of China. We would head north from Kunming stopping in several ancient towns, gradually gaining altitude until we reached our final destination high in the mountains. Could we find the promised paradise? We were destined to try…
The bad weather of Zhangjiajie had delayed our departure flight for a couple of days. After a couple of days hanging around the hotel and enjoying the cultural treasure that only the local McDonalds could bring, we were finally able to depart for our next destination of Kunming. We were leaving late in the day, which meant a long wait in the airport before departure but the airport was nice and we strangely had it almost to ourselves for the whole time we waited.
Kunming was just a brief overnight stay before we found our onward travel. Arriving after dark, the city gave off an odd vibe as so many of the buildings were brightly lit up. Even hospitals had displays that were more reminiscent of Las Vegas than the large modern city Kunming looked like the next morning. We would again be traveling by buses which are cheap and frequent in China making for easy scheduling. Just show up and buy a ticket on the next bus and off you go.
The bus journey was a long 6 hours. The views were nice as we climbed upwards towards our first destination of Dali. Small farms were visible in tight valleys along the way. Many tunnels and bridges made up the route. We were the only tourists on the bus and the locals seemed more interested in sleep than scenery, so most closed curtains so we could not see as much as we would have liked. We stopped along the way in a nice rest area and made friends with the local dog and stocked up on cookies for our ride.
Historically speaking Dali is an ancient city with a long past. Once it was a kingdom of its own, separate from the rest of China. Modern Dali is made up of two cities, the old and new. The new section where the bus station is does not give off much of the history that we were seeking for this trip. Upon arrival, we caught a taxi and made our way to the old section of town.
Located in a wonderful location between a huge lake to the east and snow covered mountains to the west the old city holds a perfect position to spend several days. After China opened up to tourists, Dali became a popular backpacker destination. With friendly locals and cheap prices, many came for brief stays and ended up hanging around for longer periods of time.
In deference to Dali’s backpacker past, we chose to stay at a wonderful hostel just outside the western gate of the walled old town. We joined an excellent collection of travelers, all with different goals for the city. Some were there to tour the villages that surround the lake, some were here to hike the canyons in the nearby mountains and some seemed to have made a home of the hostel and mostly wanted to take advantage of the cool air, blue skies and cheap beer.
There was a camaraderie between the mixed group that we found enjoyable. Spirited conversations took place around the nightly fire, pool table and bar area. Food and drinks flowed each night of the 6 nights we stayed. Fresh-faced gap year students mixed with salty travelers who gave off auras of many nights spent in shady foreign nightspots. Certainly, future books would be written about adventures had in this area.
We spent our days wandering the streets of old town. Cafes and small restaurants filled our afternoons. Dali does not offer much in terms of ‘must see’ places, but the town is perfect for wandering and just enjoying the blue skies and springlike weather that are so uncommon in China.
We seemed to be the only Westerners in town as we rarely met foreigners during our days. We continued to be a curiosity to locals and many stopped us to take pictures with us. It was rare that we set on a bench enjoying the warm afternoons without people pointing and sneaking a photo of us. A tour group of 50 spent 20 minutes of their city tour posing with us, in groups and singles until every possible combination of pose had been captured. If there is a Chinese Facebook, we must be famous somewhere.
Nights were spent sitting in the restaurant, listening and participating in conversations with young people just getting started with their travel stories and grizzled travel veterans who probably didn’t desire us to know their “best” adventures.
Soon enough we were off again, climbing higher into the mountains to our next stop of Lijiang.
Into Thin Air…
A three-hour bus ride brought us higher into mountains. Old lungs, age and overweight American bodies began to betray us as we made our way up the hill to our next hotel. Excellent views over the ancient city rewarded our effort as we met the family who runs the small inn. We drew pictures with the young girl while Grandma cooked our breakfast. We quickly made friends and through sign language, smiling and “Ni Hao” greetings we felt at home.
Lijiang was nearly destroyed in 1996 by a terrible earthquake that left more than 300,000 people homeless. The Chinese government completely rebuilt the old city which now is a World Heritage Site. Winding lanes along tiny streams with ornate bridges and gorgeous ancient architecture greet the visitor as cool afternoons are spent meandering the stunning city. Historic inns, picturesque squares and intricately carved woodwork are all to be discovered on breathtaking walks during the clear sky winter days.
To some, it may seem a bit Disneyfied, but we found it to be spectacular as we visited Wu Mansion, Black Dragon Pool and any number of courtyard houses. Sacred and snow-covered Yulong Mountain dominates in the distance from most points of the old city. 5 days were spent watching Naxi dancers in the square, Tai Chi practicing locals and enjoying delicious meals of mysterious meats and vegetables we had no idea existed.
Almost no English is spoken in the town, which made conversation difficult. All of the stores along the narrow walkways have translated signs but even these did not always help us determine what was for sale. We still do not know what is sold in the “Copper is Petrified Pork” market.
In the Mist…
The air grew thinner as we ascended further north into the even greater heights towards Shangri La. Our bus drove along dizzyingly narrow roads of the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge area. Tiny mountain mining towns along the winding river, populated by more sheep, pigs and yaks than people lined the narrow passages.
Eventually, we made our way out of the narrows and into an area of large plateaus filled with tiny farms. Prayer flags and stupas marked the road as the air grew thinner and the architecture became more Tibetan in style. Thousands of pigs ran wild and the clothing of the people took on a homemade quality that we had not seen in other areas of China. More influenced by Lhasa than Beijing the area displayed a very different atmosphere than we had seen before.
We were a little shocked our first visions of Shangri La. Ultramodern buildings and unique architecture of a combination of Tibetan and Chinese style lined the wide boulevards of the city. Skies were crystal blue and the air was frigid with a constant breeze. While we had expected a tiny village dominated by a huge monastery, we were surprised by construction everywhere that reminded us of a ski vacation village in the high mountains.
Nearly the entire old town section of Shangri La was burned in 2014. The government has again nearly rebuilt the entire area maintaining it’s unique architecture of wooden buildings and narrow streets. We found our hotel along the narrow pedestrian-only streets and liked it immediately.
The hotel was small and decorated in a style representative of an Indian/Tibetan lodge. A warm fire in the common area greeted us as we enjoyed our ginger tea served by the gracious hosts. It helped compensate for the lack of oxygen and warmed us from the chill.
We spent our 4 days walking the streets of both the old town and more modern surroundings of the new city. We have never visited such an odd place in all of our travels. It is difficult to describe without seeing. We made our way by city bus to the Songzalin Lamasery that lies along a mountain range just north of the city. It was spectacular. Smaller than the Potala Palace in Lhasa but still grand, we spent hours walking through the buildings that are occupied by some 600 monks. The interior of the buildings featured painting covered walls telling the story of Buddha. Huge carved statues of Buddha soared high in the towering interiors. Gold covered urns and statuary surrounded the giant icons and beautiful tapestries hung everywhere. The smell of incense and candles filled the air and created a magical ambiance. Despite the grand appearance, the entire complex gave off a feeling of simpleness and peace. It was the highlight of our 3-week visit to Yunnan province.
We followed our dreams and imagination to the heights of the Himalayas much as described by James Hilton in his book many years before. I don’t know if we found our Shangri La, but we thoroughly enjoyed our journey to the heights of Yunnan. We saw places we had never seen before and enjoyed strange food and music that we did not conjure in our imaginations. We enjoyed unique cultures and interacted with strangers that eventually felt like friends. While we did not find eternal life, rich abundance or a magic land of incredible wealth I suppose we did, in fact, find everything we were looking for. Maybe it was the journey to Shangri La that was exactly what we had dreamt of.