At last, Shangri-la
Yeoh Siew Hoon discovers the origin of paradise.
The road took us through landscapes so beautiful they could bring you to tears.
Guess what the first thing I did was upon arriving at Shangri-La (as in the actual Shangri-La, the name given to Zhongdian or Gyalthang, the city that sits on the border of the Yunnan-Tibetan border)? I went to the site of Shangri-La Hotel, Diqing that’s opening in Diqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It’s still a construction site, but by 2014, it will be as if Shangri-La has arrived home – at the very origin of its name.
I’d long dreamt of visiting Shangri-La via the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail. This ancient trading route was used by merchants from Pu’er in southern Yunnan through Dali and Shaxi before crossing over into Tibet, India or Myanmar.
I finally had the opportunity to visit with my friend, Uttara Sarkar Crees, who runs a travel company in Gyalthang. She designed an itinerary starting in Dali, stopping in Shaxi and Lijiang before ending in ‘Royal Plains’, which is what Gyalthang translates to in English.
Dali was the perfect place to begin our adventure. Set on a picturesque lake, the new town is huge, modern and bustling. But behind the walls of the old town, you get a feel for what it used to be like with its narrow streets and traditional houses. What makes old Dali charming is that many still reside there, so it doesn’t feel like a museum, but very much a place to live.
This area of Yunnan is known for its fertile land and agriculture, and there is an abundance of fresh vegetables and hundreds of mushroom varieties. The restaurants’ vegetable displays please the eye and tempt the palate. The local speciality, Crossing the Bridge noodles, gets its name from story about a scholar who complained to his teacher that he couldn’t study because his wife’s noodles were never hot enough. The teacher gave his wife a recipe that guaranteed it would still be hot “even if she has to cross the bridge to bring to you.” So, eat slowly because this dish is served extremely hot.
From Dali, we embarked on a day trip to Wenzhou, which brought us further back in time. Residents go about their everyday lives in the small historic village – men chatting in tea rooms over a game of checkers, women playing mah-jong on the pavement and children playing in the courtyards.
An antique shop filled with saddles, tea baskets and weights from the tea, and horse caravan trails caught my eye. We wandered into an old tea merchant’s mansion that had been converted into a museum to learn about the lives of early business travellers and how difficult their journeys must have been.
But it was Shaxi that captured my heart. Set next to a river, it’s one of the trail’s ancient staging posts, dating back 2,400 years, when copper mines were first discovered in the area. It looks like an old kung fu movie set, not contrived but surreal – a place that ought to belong in a time capsule.
The road trip was inspiring. It’s a modern road most of the way, and highways are being built to cut the travel time between Dali and Lijiang from three hours to one, and from Dali to Gyalthang seven hours to three – making Shangri‑La even more accessible.
The road took us through landscapes so beautiful they could bring you to tears. You see the vastness of the sky and the diverse vegetation as you climb from 1,000 metres to above 3,000 metres, the altitude of Gyalthang. You see farmland being converted into new towns as China’s urbanisation continues apace.
I will always remember seeing the first bend of the mighty Yangtze River in Shegu. Climbing the hills surrounding Lijiang, rising above the clouds and driving through the fog, we arrived at the plateau of Gyalthang. The vast grasslands, blue sky, fresh air and crisp temperature at night are what I remember most about Shangri-La. The old town of Dudzekhong is a delight and the streets still have their original horse tracks.
My friend, Uttara, an enterprising Uganda-born Indian, has made this her home over the last 17 years by transforming a 100-year-old tea merchant’s house into a gallery and restaurant. A year’s worth of love and labour has gone into ensuring the building’s integrity to enhance the atmosphere and authenticity. And the food is delicious, particularly the Gyalthang hotpot, a dish perfect for cool nights.
The countryside encapsulates the essence of Shangri-La. We visited a Tibetan family in Hamuku, a village two hours outside Gyalthang, and were regaled with stories, copious amounts of yak butter tea and a never-ending supply of Tibetan bread fresh from the oven.
Later, we walked in the grasslands, admiring the wildflowers and butterflies. Stopping by a stream, we lay down on the grass and looked up at the big blue sky. In that moment, I found my Shangri-La.
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Having read Lost Horizon during my stay a couple of months ago, it is fantastic to see the Group coming home to open in Diqing. Cannot wait to see it for myself.