Yunnan Province: China's Shangri-la
by ANDY ALPINE
What is Shangri-la - a place, or a state of mind? I pondered that question often during my recent journey through Yunnan, China's southwesternmost province, which borders on Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Tibet.
With its tropical rainforests in the south and snow-capped mountains on the Tibetan Plateau, Yunnan - especially the area around the Zhongdian-Degin valley - is said to be the inspiration for the fabled "Shangri-la" of James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon. (The claim is even made by the Yunnan Economy and Technology Research Centre.) Other experts say that the name is a corruption of the word Shambhala, a mystical Buddhist paradise. Whether the association with Yunnan is fact or myth, as Jane Wyatt says in the film version of the book, "I'm sure there's a wish for Shangri-la in everyone's heart."
Because it was August -the end of the rainy season -my wife Daya and I had decided to visit the region north of Kunming, the province's capital, rather than the tropical area of Xishuangbanna to the south. The province is also home to 24 ethnic minorities - Bai, Miao, Naxi, Lisu, Yi and Tibetan - each with unique culture and customs. For example, Bai opera (known as chuichui) combines narrative signing with folk music and dance. Yi women wear large silver earrings, long colorful dresses with frilly hems, and broad kite-like hats with an almost Napoleonic flavor.
For our journey, we chose the cities of Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian as our bases, since they offered excellent accommodations with easy access to the small ethnic villages. The cities were extremely clean and safe; we were always welcomed as Americans and felt comfortable roaming the back streets and alleyways at all times of the day or night. In each city we took a free day to ourselves and gave our guides and drivers a day off while we explored locales that had caught our fancy.
Kunming was the first stop on our journey. The capital of the province, it is fairly cosmopolitan and a great place to wander, its quaint back alleyways lined with wooden buildings.
The Taste of Tea
At a local tea shop here, we participated in what was almost a "ceremony" to sample Pu'er tea - considered by some as the finest of China's four teas - black, green, oolong, and Pu'er. Like a good wine, Pu'er tea mellows with age, which enhances its flavor.
The brew we tasted was made from 20-year-old fermented tea leaves, taken from a brick about the size of a medium pizza and placed in a small teapot. After brief steeping, the first infusion was poured over our small cups to warm them, and then discarded over a tea table made from a large wooden burl.
We drank the liquid of the second brewing, which was still dark red in color and had a pleasant, exotic aroma. Our tea hostess, Merry Mariah Tang, extolled its benefits -from aiding digestion to speeding recovery from drunkenness. "After you get accustomed to it, you will find you cannot leave it even for one day," she explained.
The food in the region was also excellent. Located next to Sichuan province, Yunnan's cuisine shares the same penchant for the hot and spicy. Although we ate in some restaurants where Westerners were present, most often we were surrounded by Chinese tourists who come to northern Yunnan for its exotic locales and year-round spring-like weather. One of our favorite dishes was Guoqiao Mixian, or Across-the-Bridge-Noodles, in which a piping-hot broth made from chicken, spare-ribs and duck is used to "cook" thin slices of pork, chicken and fish. Spinach, onions, chives and seasonal vegetables are also added, along with a few drops of chili pepper and sesame oil.
Travelling through Yunnan was like a journey through several different countries: each city and area was unique. One of our favorite pastimes was observing the overlapping layers and textures of the roofs and walls in the old towns. For example, the Bai people had developed an ingenious system of interlocking crossbeams and columns to withstand earthquakes. Each alleyway was a photographer's dream.
In the Dali area we visited the city of Xizhou with its Bai minority bazaar and market. Stalls were lined with fresh vegetables, melon seeds and locally grown tobacco. Fish from Erhai Lake were kept alive by pumping oxygenated water into their bins.
During our time in Xizhou we participated in the "Three Course" tea ceremony. We tasted three teas in succession: one bitter, one sweet, and the last one bittersweet with an aftertaste "to mirror life's experiences."
Dali was a great locale for cultural immersion and physical exercise. The city is best known for its Three Pagodas dating from the mid-ninth century, and nearby Erhai Lake with its cormorant fishing. As a backdrop to the city, the peaks of Zhonghe Shan and Longquan Shan loom, surrounded by steep waterfalls, lush valleys, and beautiful streams.
We got around town either by bicycle or by horse-drawn carriage. The fee for the carriage ride was always six yuan (about seventy-five cents) -five for the driver and one for the horse. Hiking up to the top of Zhonghe Shan to visit the temple on its summit (you can also take a chair lift), I was reminded of moments trekking along the trails of Nepal - the only thing missing was the flowering rhododendrons.
The old town of Lijiang, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the center of the Naxi people. With traditions dating back almost 1,400 years, the Naxi have their own written language employing over 1,300 pictographs - the only hieroglyphic language still in use.
Images of Old China
With its cobblestoned streets and old wooden and stone buildings, Lijiang gave me a sense of what Chinese towns used to be. Three rivers run through the city, and the sound of rushing water and the ever-present willow trees made a stroll through the city seem timeless. At the center of the old town, groups of Naxi women in blue trousers and blouses covered with black aprons and T-shaped capes sat in small circles focused on their own conversations, oblivious to the throngs of tourists swirling around them.
One evening, we attended a performance of the Naxi Orchestra. Far from just a tourist attraction, the traditional music performed by this group of ancient musicians (average age of members is 70) dates back to the Song and Tang dynasties more than 13 centuries ago.
The musical instruments - including a fish-shaped drum, an ancient lute, three stringed instruments, cymbals and gongs - had been buried for their protection during the Cultural Revolution when such music was banned, and the orchestra leader himself imprisoned. Listening to songs with titles such as "Waves Washing the Sand" and "The Old Man of Qing River," we spent an evening in another time and place.
One of the most photographed spots in Yunnan is Lijiang's Black Dragon Pool Park, with its crystal-clear water and backdrop of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Although I had seen photographs of Black Dragon before visiting Lijiang, the pictures didn't compare to the view we beheld the first morning in town. Hundreds of white flowers seemed to be suspended above the pond. Actually, the plants were rooted to the pond bottom, and the blossoms floated on the surface of the gin-clear water.
Heart of Shangri-la
From Lijiang, we drove up into the Tibetan Plateau to Zhongdian - the center of the Shangri-la region. On the way we passed the "first bend" of the mighty Yangtze River on its 3,914 mile journey to the sea. In addition to the physical beauty of the almost 300-degree turn, this site is an historic one. Here, the People's Army crossed the river in 1936 during the Long March to the north; almost seven hundred years earlier, Kublai Khan had forded the river, supposedly floating across on inflated sheep skins.
After a short drive through majestic mountain valleys, we arrived at Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the deepest gorges in the world, it measures 10 miles long and rises almost 12,000 feet to the snow-capped mountaintops.
A complete hike through the gorge can take several days. Instead, we settled for a trek down to the turbulent waters where the tiger of the myth jumped to the boulder in the center of the river and then on to the other side.
When we finally reached the Tibetan Plateau, we saw giant structures that, from a distance, appeared to be solar collectors. As we came closer to the Tibetan villages, these shapes took the form of enormous drying racks for barley - the mainstay of the Tibetan diet. Reaching heights of more than 40 feet, these wooden structures were found in or around each village that we passed. A farmer sat on the top of the tower, weaving the bundles of barley that were thrown up to him from ground level.
Poised at an altitude of almost 10,500 feet, Zhongdian is rich with Tibetan culture. Women wearing headpieces, large silver earrings and bracelets were everywhere - strolling through the daily market, riding on the backs of motorbikes, playing with their children. Restaurants displaying yak tails (indicating that they had fresh yak meat on the menu) were crowded with men in traditional Tibetan dress, with broad-rimmed hats and dark suits. Buddhist monks in red robes added even more color to the scene.
A highlight of our time in Zhongdian was visiting the Tibetan monastery complex of Songzanlin Si. On the outskirts of town, this 300-year-old monastery is home to some 600 monks. This Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) Monastery was started by the fifth Dalai Lama in 1679 and houses eight colleges in half a dozen buildings.
After viewing the main temple and burning incense before several shrines we had an audience with an "Enlightened Buddha" - the resident head lama. He blessed our prayer beads and bracelets, and offered his wishes for our health and happiness.
When we left the lama's presence, we were invited by his aide to the lama's kitchen for butter tea and cakes. Our own guide was truly taken back by the visit to the kitchen - a unique privilege for Westerners. We left the monastery with smiles of happiness and contentment.
By journeying to exotic locales, travelers can transport their everyday personalities into another realm - can visit Shangri-la, so to speak. Yunnan province offered just that experience for me.
All of our travel arrangements in Yunnan Province, including local flights, were handled by Orient Odyssey, International Travel Service, 1385 Gulf Road, Suite 203, Point Roberts, WA 98281. Tel: 800-637- 5778; Fax: 800-564-8893. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.orientodyssey.com.
Photo courtesy of Judy Alpine.::::::::::