In search of Shangri La in south China

Mark Stratton explores the perfect peaks, wild treks and hidden cultures of China’s mythical Shangri-La region, taking in hilltop Buddhist temples and opium-infused delicacies along the way

5 mins

Travel writers have long waxed lyrical about their literal and metaphorical quests to find Shangri-La. Ever since James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon popularised a fictitious Himalayan paradise of immortals secreted amid impenetrable mountains, vast reams have been scribbled and sung about searching for this mislaid utopia.

In the tradition of this genre, I, too, have poured forth about Shangri-La because (drumroll, please) I really did find it. Guess what? It was easy. There was no crossing endless mountain passes with yak caravans, just one simple flight, #MU585, departing daily from Chengdu and bound for Xianggelila (sic) in South China’s Yunnan Province. 

But while my easily found paradise certainly bears the geographic credentials of Shangri-La – located at 3,400m and surrounded by snowcapped Himalayan behemoths – the truth is that, back in 2001, the Chinese authorities renamed the town known as Zhongdian ‘Shangri-La’ to better stimulate tourism.

This not-so-mythical realm’s old quarter is genuinely pleasant though, lying nestled beneath a hilltop Buddhist temple and a 60,000kg golden prayer wheel the size of a nuclear reactor. The temple is festooned with multicoloured prayer flags and popular with Shangri-La’s Tibetan majority. I watched the locals circumambulating its walls; the elderly ladies wore turquoise jewellery set against their weather-beaten skin while the Tibetan men balanced trilbies as they gyrated handheld prayer wheels and mouthed “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Yet the noisy Chinese tour parties, who span the hefty giant prayer wheel like it was some playground apparatus, were evidence enough that Shangri-La had been well and truly discovered.

But faux or otherwise, this Shangri-La would still provide me with a journey to some ‘lost’ places of my own. Yunnan’s heavenly East Himalayan mountains would see me wind through some extraordinary – and under threat – cultures, from Tibetans and frog-slaughtering shamans to matriarchs with little use for men.

My trip to ‘paradise’ started with a detour to Chengdu and a meeting with Jessica Zhu Yu. This earnest young Chinese woman promised to show me China beyond the typical tours of mainstream operators.

“Travel agents often exploit ethnic people. I want to treat them with dignity, so they benefit from tourism,” she explained. Joining us would be ‘Eagle’, a jovial Tibetan driver-guide who spoke little English. He’d communicate by left-field mobile phone translations. ‘I love the morning tea food is Jesus,’ his phone messaged me one breakfast.

Panda eating bamboo, Chengdu (Dreamstime)

Before climbing higher into the Himalaya, we made a couple of local excursions to acclimatise. Our first port of call was Leshan’s 71m-high eighth-century Buddha, carved into rose sandstone cliffs. The big Buddha seemingly possessed greater potential for longevity than the lethargic pandas I saw at Chengdu’s famous breeding centre, who sat docilely scoffing bamboo while being micromanaged to survival.

Several hours’ drive out of Chengdu, I got a snapshot of the Tibetan cultural landscape that lay ahead in the crisp Oriental Alps. I hiked for a day into Changping Valley, a land frosted white by an early snowfall that had powdered the Buddhist lamaseries and stiffened their bunting. The valley was lee-side of ‘Four Girls Mountains’ (Mount Siguniang), a crown of four jagged prongs of 5,000m summits that soared over a coniferous forest in which pine needles had created a spongy path.

During the hike I started to understand what it was about Shangri- La that set travel writers off on lyrical flourishes, particularly after encountering Mount Pomiu: a 5,500m rock pyramid that reduced the handiwork of Giza’s craftsmen to miniatures.

“Few foreigners know about this mountain,” beamed Jessica. Ironically, it was Hilton who seemed to capture Pomiu’s spirit best when describing the fictional Mount Karakal in Lost Horizon: ‘a perfect cone of snow, simple in outline as if a child had drawn it’.

Two days later, I found myself once again referencing Lost Horizon. Having flown into faux Shangri-La, we’d then taken an excursion to the 17th-century Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. Hilton describes Shangri-La as being overseen by a magnificent Tibetan lamasery. Gazing upon this white-walled monastic fortress, it didn’t seem so outrageous to think that he might have been inspired by Sumtseling.

Inside, I explored the khamtsen prayer halls, sliding though doorways concealed by yak-wool blankets and into the inner sanctums of the Buddhist monks. Magpie-like collections of ceremonial bling – from brass bowls to lotus-flower icons – made it feel like an Aladdin’s cave. Yet when a scarlet-robed monk throat-sang baritone mantras as the coruscating light of a butter-lamp revealed frescoes of blue-skinned demons, my skin tingled as if something spiritual stirred.

Monks at Ganden Sumtseling Monastery (Mark Stratton)

The wind sang its own mantras later, strafing nearby Lake Napahai. This lake performs a conjuring trick over the seasons, vanishing over winter to reveal emerald-hued steppe grazed by yak before reappearing with springtime’s snowmelt. With winter arriving, it was retracting into a mosaic of wetlands, fussed over by rare black-necked cranes.

We circumnavigated the water by bicycle and returned ravenous. Tibetan cuisine is particularly hearty, no-nonsense food and we dined on charcoal-sizzled yak hotpot with unleavened barley bread and salted butter tea that had been churned in a bamboo tube.

The source of Lake Napahai’s sorcery is nine hidden subterraneous caves, which drain into the Jinsha River. We followed this upper valley of the Yangtze the next day, bidding farewell to the Tibetans. Jinsha Valley’s theatre unfolded during a steep 15km section as it bisected the twin colossus of Jade Dragon Snow (5,596m) and Haba Snow (5,396m) Mountains. Here the pulverising attrition of Jinsha had steadily gouged out Tiger Leaping Gorge to create what was arguably China’s most rewarding hike.

Chain handrails assisted us down a perilous descent to the valley bottom where a swaying suspension bridge spanned spitting whitewater. We crossed onto a mid-river rock pedestal where legend has it a hunted tiger leapt to safety to escape its pursuers. Ahead, the hike turned via ferrata without karabiner shackles. The path ran into a rock face where a sign warned those suffering ‘fear or exhaustion’ to turn back prior to a 30m-high metal ‘sky’ ladder pinned vertically to the cliff. The only safety provisions were Buddhist prayer flags: possibly reassurance of reincarnation if the unfortunate occurred?

After clearing the ladder with perspiring relief, I clambered past a Naxi lady’s cliff-ledge tea-stall offering cure-alls for hypertension. Among the cans of Red Bull, she was also selling sizeable bags of homegrown cannabis. I asked Jessica if that was legal in China. “Umm, I don’t think so,” she pondered. “Perhaps the Naxi don’t know this?”

Tiger Leaping Gorge (Dreamstime)

It turned out that Jessica’s answer wasn’t that disingenuous. The ethnic Naxi are remote mountain people who have since congregated around our next destination: Lijiang. And it wasn’t long before we were served another dubious Naxi delicacy, after having ridden quadbikes the following day to visit Yuhu, China’s best-preserved Naxi village. At lunch, I tried a spinach-like dish the Naxi call ‘yingshu’. “It’s good, Jessica, what is it?” I enquired.

“Umm, opium leaves,” she responded, just as the restaurateur returned with a large bucket of them.

The Naxi women were easily recognised by the sheepskin capes they wore on their backs, while their village, Yuhu, consisted of higgledypiggledy streets of 100- to 200-year-old homes ensconced behind patterned compound doors. The tiled roofs were topped by ceramic cats with wide-open mouths that supposedly invited prosperity.

Yuhu’s oldest house was now a museum dedicated to Austro- American linguist and botanist Joseph Rock, who had lived here between 1922 and 1949, reporting on Naxi culture. Inside Rock’s frangipani-fragranced courtyard lay an engaging collection of his photography, but what particularly piqued my curiosity were images of dongba (shamans) performing exorcisms to appease departed spirits.

The spirit world still thrives in Yuhu. One dongba still lives near a shrine of wooden tablets decorated by childlike pictograms of horned stickmen, axes, animals and a set of lips resembling a Rolling Stones album cover. At the outer wall of the shaman’s compound, we were puzzling over a particularly satanic-looking circular chart that was illustrated with grotesque monsters when the dongba appeared wearing a Chinese double-breasted tunic and wide-brimmed hat. “Naxi faith has been around for 18,000 years and comes from Tibet. We worship 360 gods,” he declared precisely. “Some are nature spirits, some are human.”

The chart turned out to be astrological, and was used for blessing weddings and births as well as predicting the future, the dongba explained. With political correctness disappearing out the window, he pointed to a dark chicken glyph and a golden frog on the chart.

“People from the West are black and the Chinese are yellow,” he oversimplified. An arrow impaled the bloodied frog. “It stole our sacred words, so we killed it,” he explained – sentiments, I imagined, that must go down a treat with the Chinese authorities.

The Jinsha Valley unshackles into a huge canyon en route to the high alpine plateau that occupies a great chunk of north-western Yunnan. From the plateau’s edge, I gazed out across Lake Lugu, a sapphire blue mirage on the Yunnan-Sichuan border embossed with forested islands and fishermen in wooden canoes twirling nets.

Sino-Tibetan Mosuo grandmother and mother (Mark Stratton)

The lake is home to the Sino-Tibetan Mosuo people. I’d read that their complex matrilineal social structure was sometimes misrepresented by Chinese tour operators, who characterised the women as Amazonians with a penchant for ‘free love’. Sadly, the description initially seemed to have done the trick: a melee of tour buses around our hotel on Li Ge Island left Jessica fretting about the new road from Lijiang that had cut the driving distance to the lake. She feared that tourism might now swamp the Mosuo.

Their cuisine, however, is not likely to attract mass visitors. At a restaurant that evening, a delicacy often-year-old preserved pig was the worst thing I’d tasted since Faroese whale blubber. I tossed a piece to a Tibetan spaniel hoovering up morsels. It gave it a wide berth. ‘DOG LOVE KFC,’ Eagle off ered by way of irreverent phone translation.

Yet Jessica’s desire to take her guests beyond the tourist traps meant that the next morning we were circling Lugu on mopeds to find Gesa village, set discreetly among the cornfields. She had arranged a private visit to a family household.

Mosuo households are run by several generations of women. They practice tisese, ‘walking marriages’ where custom dictates the man appears by night for conjugal visits and departs before sunrise. Women raise their children alone albeit in an extended family setting; men relax and recharge their batteries for nocturnal dalliances. Don’t think about applying: you must be born Mosuo to take on such ‘onerous’ responsibilities.

A young woman called Rujida-la welcomed us into her compound, where we were led under a gateway hung with a horned yak skull to find a courtyard of wooden cabins housing 18 family members. Of particular interest was the grandmother’s room. She headed the household and was respectfully dressed as Ahmi. Her bed was set in a niche recessed into the wall, higher than the other householders to denote her status.

Yuhu village shrine (Mark Stratton)

Here, Tibetan Buddhist shrines sat comfortably alongside animist beliefs. In the kitchen we sat around a flower-engraved hearth box altar called the nobo, where her daily prayers were offered to an adjacent sacred mountain. I noticed a hung ‘fat pig’, so beseeched any mountain god listening that I might not be offered any. Instead, Rujida-la served piping hot cornbread and butter tea.

Her mother and 80-year-old grandmother joined us in the kitchen, both traditionally attired in flowing embroidered skirts and turbans (an Ahmi always wears a black one). Surrounded by women, I plucked up the courage to enquire about the salaciousness of matrilineal life. “Male children stay with us and become uncles to their sister’s children,” started Rujida-la, “but our fathers are not here.”

“So where does your ‘husband’ live?” I asked.

“In the village – but in his birth home. I don’t see him and we don’t have a word for divorce, so we just meet other men. My mother never knew her father but this is normal for Mosuo,” she said, describing a sort of serial monogamy. “We do everything: cultivate the corn, housework, fetch firewood and make clothes.” The men, she conceded, do at least go fishing.

Rujida-la showed me a picture of the son she raised alone, who was now reading law in Chengdu. Her pride was palpable. “Tourism has brought more money to the Mosuo, so grandmas’ can rest from their heavy responsibilities,” she stated. “But we do not want our customs to change.”

As we left, Jessica offered her a gratuity for my visit. She politely refused with a smile. It would be misleading to ignore how China’s 56 recognised ethnic groups have been subject to restraints upon their cultural practices, cultural assimilation and worse – and in Tibet’s case, outright suppression.

Yet the lands beyond Shangri-La had challenged my own lingering perception that Han-dominated China had little room for differing ethnic minorities.

As we headed back to Lijiang, I’d figured that my wanderings around Shangri-La were coming to an end, but an expected twist remained. In a nondescript mountain town called Ninglang, I spotted ladies crowned by enormous black headdresses, across between flying kites and nuns’ wimples.

“They are Yi,” confirmed Jessica, and five minutes later she had arranged lunch with a local family.

In their courtyard, I picked at a mound of fatty pork under the scrutiny of two septuagenarians sporting metre-tall headdresses that were surely hazardous in high winds? Their accoutrements included silver throat amulets and long pipes stuffed with something, umm, homegrown. They spoke no Chinese. Their brother-in-law, Wunian, said the Yi conversed in Loloish, which has vague similarities to Burmese and that they roam into Thailand and Vietnam. “We prefer living in the mountains, but this life is hard,” said Wunian. I asked him if they worshipped those mountains or followed Buddhism? “Some say that we’re children of the eagle,” he stated rather cryptically, before adding, “we are suspicious of Buddhists, but some of us trust in Jesus.”

This might have sounded like another mistranslation from Eagle’s mobile phone but, by now, I had come to appreciate the contradictions of this mystical realm’s cultures and landscapes, seemingly set apart from the rest of China. Hilton’s novel might have been a fictitious concept but I had truly found my own Shangri-La.



The author travelled with Windows on the Wild on their bespoke Trails of Undiscovered China journey. This 12-night trip features excursions around Chengdu, Four Sisters Mountains, Shangri-La, Lijiang and Lake Lugu, including international and internal flights, all accommodation and meals, a guide, private transfers and excursions. Contact the tour operator for the latest pricing info.

Main image: Leshan Giant Buddha (Mark Stratton)

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