Shangri-La - 2007

Part One:

An Amazing Trip Through Time
Exploring the Changing Face of China:
Shangri-La to Shanghai
September, 2007

When I think of adventure travel, testing my limits, seeking the exotic, or facing the unexpected most often pop into my mind.

Planning this trip to China, adventure travel wasn't on my agenda. I realized, however, that I was headed for a still pretty remote region and would be journeying through the old China and the new.
It started out simply as a trip planned with the Orient Odyssey company to explore China's Yunnan Province. My travel friend Jean Krebs and I would join a twelve-person group to explore Yunnan and then take off on our own for Guangxi Province. I chose Yunnan because it is located in the southwest corner of China, bordering on the Himalayas and Tibet to the northwest and Burma, Laos and Vietnam on the south. It is home to a third of China's ethnic minorities, including the Yi, the Bai, and the Naxi, as well as Tibetans and Mongols, and I wanted to visit several of these interesting minority cultures along the way.

Since I had a jarring 22-hour flight to China in store, why not add on a flight to Guilin while I was there, I thought. Doing that, I could finally sail down the Li River. This was an experience I had always dreamed of and here was my perfect opportunity! If you've seen the recent movie, "The Painted Veil" or an assortment of other historical China flicks, you'd recognize the spectacular limestone cliffs rising above the misty banks of the Li River. One of the most scenic landscapes in China, it appears in many famous Chinese paintings.

This itinerary combined two of my most recurring travel obsessions—a desire to explore the ancient Silk Road (Yunnan provided a key route for Southern Silk Road merchants to carry precious silk, spices and jewels to Europe.) and perhaps my last chance to test my endurance in the thin air of a high Tibetan plateau of the Himalayan mountains.

I worried about the lack of oxygen I'd be faced with in the high altitude of Shangri-La (Zhongdian) in the Himalayas, but I wouldn't let this minor problem deter me. After all, Shangri-La is reputed to be the mythical setting of James Hilton's 1933 novel, "Lost Horizon." In Shangri-La, I had read, you would remain young for 200 years if you never left the sacred mountain village. I began to daydream that once there, I'd never return home, or better yet, would resurrect my lost youth during this short China idyll. Whatever!

These, and other potential challenges awaited me as I journeyed through time to this mythical mountain kingdom, hiked the strenuous trail into Tiger Leaping Gorge, struggled up hundreds of ancient stone steps to visit mountain-top Buddhist monasteries, and wandered through centuries-old farm villages to learn how different minorities lived.

Well, I'd love to captivate you with a romanticized tale of adventure--perhaps an unexpected encounter with the Dalai Lama in Shangri-La or uncovering a priceless jade Buddha statue buried in the mounds of trinkets piled high in every market stall we explored.
Unfortunately, I can't.

But I can say that my China odyssey resulted in a truly unforgettable journey through time. I found my mind constantly careening back and forth from the past to the present and future almost faster than I could absorb information. One moment I'd be exploring some narrow cobblestone lane in a 750-year-old farm village.  Moments later our van would pass by golden fields of rice and I'd watch water buffalo help plow rice paddies as they have for a millennium.

Just a few hours later, I'd land after a two-hour flight and encounter chilling examples of China's future. With eyes smarting from smog polluting the grey Shanghai skyline, I was stunned by the sight of massive orange cranes marching across the entire horizon. They are omni-present in China's largest city, destroying ancient neighborhoods as mile-high corporate skyscrapers and huge concrete apartment buildings spring up everywhere. Even in the outskirts of smaller towns, I saw many of these massive "relocation" apartments for farm workers--- dreary concrete monoliths that now house farmers who must ride their bikes far out into the countryside to cultivate rice paddies and corn fields near their former village homes.

These were the many faces of the old and new China I observed over a few short weeks. Alternating scenes of exquisite beauty and depressing ugliness left me not only with a sense of awe at China's historic past but with a certainty that China surely will become the preeminent world power far sooner than some predict.

The following are some of my China pictures.

At the huge Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center in Chengdu you can see more giant and lesser pandas than anywhere in the world. Eighty percent of the world's 1,000 remaining pandas are found there. (But I've also seen some adorable ones at Washington's National Zoo.)  We observed tiny newborns in bassinets, giant ones hanging from trees, and many in between, including a rare RED panda. I heard, but can't verify, that ancient Chinese armies trained giant pandas to fight in battle with them!

I enjoyed many tea ceremonies on this trip, but this afternoon's was unusual. In Chengdu we strolled through a popular park that featured what seemed like acres of traditional teahouses. Hundreds of people seated around rickety tables and chairs were enjoying tea as they met with friends and family, played chess, or showed off their musical skills on ancient Chinese instruments. We found a quiet spot around a table, and I enjoyed my first of many sips of green tea.

At one pavilion we watched a woman create fragile candy ornam ents. Her designs disappeared quickly when children persuaded their parents to spend a few yuan on the sweet treats.

At the immensely popular 300-year-old Sichuan Opera in Chengdu we listened to the high pitched singing and ear-splitting clash of percussion and other ancient instruments. The cacaphony of sound (to some Western ears) accompanied brilliantly-costumed dancers and singers who portrayed local legends and myths. A useful signage system presenting English subtitles helped us decipher the well-known Sichuan tales.

The highlight of the evening was the presentation of "Changing Faces," the Sichuan trick of face-changing. Clearly, the audience was anticipating the famous performance, and it was worth the modest cost of a ticket.  Brilliantly costumed masked men portrayed many characters in quick succession, whisking off one mask after another and changing their masked faces faster than the blink of an eye! One mask simply disappeared and another instantaneously took its place—without any apparent movement of the actor. It was a marvelous display of magic. (As I continued my travels in China, my mind kept visualizing this "Changing Faces" spectacle. I came to the conclusion that the dramatic display of changing masks perfectly describes the extraordinary speed at which change is taking place in China.)

Yunnan Province most often is described as a land "South of the Clouds." At 6,500 feet above sea level, its capital, Kunming, is the City of Eternal Spring.  Here we drove to the nearby Western Hills where a series of paths, chambers, steps, and tunnels excavated out of the sheer cliff face of the mountain take you up 2,000 feet to a treasury of temples and to the impressive Dragon's Gate at the summit. This day's hike turned out to be an extremely strenuous exercise for me since I had just come down with bronchitis, but I was determined to make the climb up the more than 400 steps.

At Taihua Temple on the way down from Dragon's Gate summit a family of three generations in the cloistered courtyard caught my eye.

Awaiting our first meal in Chengdu, our guide said we'd be enjoying most of our meals at a "Susan, Lazy." (From then on, we all called the revolving centerpiece of the communal table, the "Susan, Lazy.")  My intro to the unknown in Chinese cuisine came with the first "Susan, Lazy" course.  We were served many courses but most often couldn't identify anything except the ubiquitous huge rice bowl. We soon learned that we had two drink choices at lunch and dinner-- light beer or Sprite. Water was never served.

Every restaurant we attended had a similar menu.  Here, looking down from our balcony table, I see these diners enjoying their Susan, Lazy meal. Their dishes are identical to our own.

Open air markets presented a dazzling array of photo choices. Exotic spices, unfamiliar vegetables, brilliantly colored fruit, wiggling live fish, noodles of every variety, and freshly made dumplings and other delectable looking finger foods led to an abundance of tantalizing picture possibilities.

I was surprised at the importance of corn to the livelihood of the people.  In Yunnan we saw varying cycles of corn production—from tall brown stalks filling neatly terraced fields and bunches of dried husks hanging in courtyards to batches of yellow kernels drying openly in back alley courtyards.

Handling chopsticks deftly is critical to dining well in China.  I picked up the art of manipulating them as quickly as a left-handed person without great manual dexterity can.  (Suffice it to say, I lost five pounds on this trip.)

In addition to living on rice, the best, most reliable food of all
was watermelon. I loved it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

Green Lake was a beautiful spot for walking, meditation, or just enjoying the fresh air.

Rice, the vital food staple and cash crop, grows everywhere.

Often flooded in 6 inches of water, the plant is bundled neatly in a field.  Much rice is still cut by hand-held sickles, we learned.

[Go to Shangri-La Part Two]