Shangri-la and Yad­ing: A Sto­ry­book Land­scape

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text and pho­to­graphs by He­lena Vil­lar Se­gura

Zhong­dian was once just a vil­lage sur­rounded by val­leys in north­west­ern Yun­nan Prov­ince. Im­pres­sively, it in­spired the hid­den land de­scribed by James Hil­ton in his novel Lost Hori­zon. The lo­cale be­came so fa­mous glob­ally that it was re­named Shangri-la.

It was mid-morn­ing by the time we fi­nally found a car to take us there. A private van driven by a lo­cal guy with a strong ac­cent pulled over to the shoul­der, and we glanced at each other for a mo­ment be­fore jump­ing into the old ve­hi­cle with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Less than three hours later, we dropped off our lug­gage at a guest­house and headed straight to the Gan­den Sumt­sel­ing Monastery. At an al­ti­tude of 3,380 meters, the Ti­betan Bud­dhist monastery re­flects its gilded cop­per roof onto a silent lake. Only in­sects and swim­ming ducks dis­turbed the per­fect im­age on the dark wa­ter. As we en­tered the monastery, a mys­te­ri­ous at­mos­phere sur­prised us: monks could be seen ev­ery­where med­i­tat­ing or strolling around, col­or­ful prayer flags of dif­fer­ent sizes were hang­ing ev­ery­where, and an­i­mals walked around freely in to­tal har­mony with ev­ery sin­gle el­e­ment of the monastery. Even the sounds seemed to be co­or­di­nated in such per­fect har­mony that it was the clos­est thing to si­lence I have ever heard. Per­haps be­cause it was about to rain, the sky dark­ened and the clouds thick­ened. The feel­ing was pow­er­ful and shock­ing due to the in­ten­sity of ev­ery­thing around me. The blues were bluer than ever, and same could be said for white or green. It was so peace­ful that even be­fore we stepped in­side the halls of the “Lit­tle Po­tala Palace” to see its fres­cos and sculp­tures or smell the in­cense, the whole val­ley had im­pressed us.

The next morn­ing, we set out to the small­est cof­fee shop in Shangri-la, six kilo­me­ters from the largest Ti­betan Bud­dhist monastery in Yun­nan Prov­ince. The owner was a typ­i­cal artist from In­ner Mon­go­lia who made “wish boxes.” Vis­i­tors are sup­posed to write down a dream or wish and place it in­side, lock it, and tell no one the pass­word. Only some­one who re­ally wants to help a vis­i­tor re­al­ize his or her dream can open one box. I had a try. I care­fully wrote down my big­gest dream and put the lit­tle note in­side a hand-made box with the num­ber “3” writ­ten on it. Then, I for­got all about it. Only sev­eral weeks in the fu­ture would it catch up to me.

Those days we ate a lot of yak meat and pota­toes, lis­tened to Ti­betan mu­sic, drank

cof­fee and took long bus rides. The most im­pres­sive trip took us to a town called Daocheng in Sichuan Prov­ince. We en­dured more than 10 hours on the most amaz­ing zigzag­ging road I have ever seen. Rain­soaked pine forests, breath­tak­ing cliffs, yaks and wild horses and Ti­betan ar­chi­tec­ture es­corted us up to the plateau. It is a dif­fer­ent world that lit­er­ally takes your breath away. The high al­ti­tude af­fects many who re­side in coastal ar­eas. The lower air pres­sure makes phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity more dif­fi­cult. We were com­pletely aware of this fac­tor when we set off on a hike at an el­e­va­tion of more than 4,000 meters. Locked in Yad­ing Na­ture Re­serve ap­prox­i­mately 200 kilo­me­ters from Daocheng, where land­slides decorated the road, are three holy moun­tains. We were drawn to the glaciated peaks and be­gan slowly, care­fully and wearily scal­ing the hills. Along the way, Ti­betan no­mads of­fered us horses for rent to climb up to Milk Lake. We refused them all. Even though we were ex­hausted af­ter spend­ing one night at that al­ti­tude and eat­ing just a few snacks, we re­mained com­mit­ted to hik­ing in. Milk Lake is an in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful glacier-fed lake at an el­e­va­tion of 4,480 meters. On the way we saw other hik­ers give up due to al­ti­tude sick­ness. It be­came in­tensely dif­fi­cult to move and breathe: each time we stopped to rest just made it more dif­fi­cult to start walk­ing again. A weird headache set in as soon as we passed by the first lake and climbed on to­wards Five-color Lake. Some vari­a­tions of fa­tigue and nau­sea fol­lowed. And then we were there. A feel­ing of in­signif­i­cance in­vaded us, as a ma­jes­tic and spa­cious lake blan­keted the foot of the moun­tain in front of us. Just a few peo­ple wan­dered the area, which seemed far from re­al­ity. Vis­i­tors took pic­tures, caught their breath and ad­mired the bright and col­or­ful wa­ter. The feel­ing was strange, be­yond hap­pi­ness or in­spi­ra­tion, some­thing closer to fear. As if re­al­ity turned up­side down, we soon found our­selves on a sandy beach 4,530 meters above sea level, but it was void of waves, salt, seag­ulls or marine an­i­mals. We ex­pected any­thing else to emerge from the fresh wa­ter. It seemed fit for a crea­ture like Loch Ness. We got a bit dizzy, not sure whether it was just the al­ti­tude, or more the beauty of the place. The next day we took a plane to Chengdu from the world’s high­est civil air­port. On the flight, far above the snowy land we crossed, we could see the same peaks above the clouds. They looked as mag­nif­i­cent as they did from the ground.

A cou­ple of weeks later, when I re­turned to nor­mal life, I got an e-mail from a girl who had opened my wish box in Shangri-la, which I could hardly be­lieve at first. I wrote back to her. Along with the same fa­vorite num­ber 3, our dream was the same. “I can’t make our dream come true,” she ad­mit­ted, “but we should talk about it some time, be­cause I want to be a writer too.” I may never get my wish, but as with ev­ery­thing on the trip, just mak­ing it was spe­cial.

My mem­o­ries of the place seem bound­less. I feel the same chill ev­ery time I look back.

A panoramic view of Five- Color Lake. We were ex­hausted when we reached this point. Huge, stun­ning, cold and breath­tak­ing, the lake was worth the ef­fort. Lo­cals, how­ever, were there like ev­ery­thing else in na­ture. They were con­sid­er­ably less tired and exc

The Lit­tle Po­tala Palace makes it hard to leave. Monks walk­ing around among an­i­mals, in­sects, vis­i­tors and si­lence make the place alive. It’s far greater than just a tourist spot.

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