Once upon a long time, Beijing was Peking and Guangdong was Canton. Shanghai was the Paris of the East, its quaint Chinese homes pitting character on little concealed lanes against the city’s cosmopolitan air.
The year was 1988 and I was lucky to be in a China when Confucianism was the core of everyday living, when the one-child policy had just been introduced, Mao suits (after Mao Zedong) were the fashion and the bicycle was king of the road.
After six more visits, I now find how China’s key cities have become mega-metropolises with ultramodern skyscrapers whose intended majesty is constantly shrouded in pollution, and a population that will run you down when you cross the streets.
I yearned to visit a place when China remains the Cathay of forgotten kingdoms and where heritage thrives against all odds.
In April this year, with my daughters Monica and Gabbi, I headed to the China on my mind.
One such eternal city is Lijiang—nestled close to the Himalayas in the northwest of Yunnan beside the province of Sichuan.
Lijiang was built during the reign of Kublai Khan, the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.
It is a city with an 800-year-old history of lucrative commerce—first as trading post on the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road, and now as a popular destination among the Chinese themselves, who come in steady numbers from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to breathe in Lijiang’s wealth of history, ancient architectural and natural beauty.
My daughters and I were simply awed by the city, even a bit envious of its friendly Naxi people for the gift of natural and historical wealth that they wake up to every single day.
Lijiang’s five-star Banyan Tree Resort is right in the town of Shuhe on the crossroads of the Southern Silk Road, a key route to Bengal via Burma (Myanmar), Tibet and other parts of China via Sichuan in ancient times.
Today this route is a cemented motorway where horses and mules carrying tea and other goods are challenged for space by all forms of public transportation.
We walked to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) World Heritage Site, taking in significant tourist information before enjoying the trek on cobblestone alleys dotted with B&Bs and private homes, crossing arched bridges and watching people unfold the day’s grind.
A delicious Naxi hot pot, consumed in a perfect spot overlooking weeping willows bending over a stream that crossed the town, clinched our happy first day in this beautifully preserved part of China.
How foolish the thought turned out to be. On our last day in Shuhe, Monica and Gabbi learned from their trek guide that what we had visited was a town built only a few years ago. We refused to leave without seeing the real thing, so our last lunch in Shuhe was taken in the authentic old town where our take-home memories were rightfully amended!
Baisha and Dayan
We made sure to watch “Impression Lijiang,” a grand outdoor performance created by the famous filmmaker Zhang Yimou, best known as codirector of the incomparable 2009 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies.
Five hundred ethnic Naxi, Bai and Yi men and women, with 100 horses from nearby farms, unfolded a spectacular one-hour extravaganza of tradition woven into the legend of the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. Patently Zhang Yimou, the show left us absolutely breathless.
A rather sobering tour of the 1,000-year-old village of Baisha was next. Said to be the oldest and earliest settlement of the Naxi people and the cradle of the Mu clan, Baisha has the earliest irrigation engineering in China, as well as ancient structures dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The three most significant ones are the Dabaoji Palace, the Liuli Temple and the Wenchang Palace. The famous 12 Baisha murals are housed in the Dabaoji Palace, the most remarkable of which depicts the convergence of Buddhism, Taoism and Lamaism in Lijiang.
Naxi women are known for their hand embroidery, especially before the Great Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Famous Naxi masters were sent to jail for the intricate hand embroidery they had crafted for Naxi emperors.
Today the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute preserves and promotes this artistry. Expecting a tourist trap when we walked in, I was quite gratified to see magnificent embroideries on the wall and eventually bought one of the more affordable ones among a selection that I—struck by love at first sight—instinctively “had to have.”
‘Venice of the Orient’
The old city of Dayan’s pride is its architecture. Called the “Venice of the Orient,” it is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. Lijiang’s flowing water supply from the glaciers is centered here with its canals built under quaint arch bridges.
The Mu family lived here and governed Lijiang for over 500 years, and is credited with the engineering system that has efficiently provided water to the city and its environs.
The original Mu residence in the Old Town of Dayan was recently refashioned to replicate the Forbidden City. Dayan’s version is smaller, of course, and with blue-tile roofs instead of red.
Dayan is best visited in the early mornings, when its awesomeness shines unspoiled by unrelenting touristic activities.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
We set off for Ringha, in Shangri-La county in the early morning, passing through the gorgeous Tiger Leaping Gorge, said to be one of the most spectacular river canyons and among the world’s deepest gorges. We enjoyed the view in both ways that it was available.
My daughters took the two-hour trek on its left bank in Lijiang, and I took the car on the opposite side in the Shangri-La side to take photos of the rumbling waters and hear the power they reverberated between the snowcapped mountains of Haba Xue Shan to the west and Yulong Xue Shan to the east.
All this was planned so we could see the famous First Bend of the Yangtze, where the river makes a 90-degree turn toward Shanghai. It was the entry path for Kublai Khan’s Mongol troops 800 years ago, and it was in there somewhere near the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
I thought I saw it, but because our driver spoke only Chinese, I was never able to confirm what that precious glimpse really was in Shangri-La.
We continued our journey at 10,000 feet above sea level, leaving behind verdant forests blanketed with fresh snow. The peak yielded seemingly endless meadowlands dotted by distinctly Tibetan farmers’ homes, their A-shaped roofs heavily laden with protective rocks over their chimneys, all still speckled with bits of snow.
We were traveling across the Yunnan province of China, but this vast vista brought about by atmospheric conditions blessed us with romantic impressions of being in Tibet.
We were very soon in Shangri-La!
Remote, pristine and breathtaking, this region, erstwhile called Zhongdian by the Chinese, and Gyalthang by the Tibetans, is actually the seat of the Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. I dared asked our guide if the region was indeed “autonomous” but I never got a reply.
Who cared, when everything that unfolded gave life to James Hilton’s novel, “Lost Horizon,” in which a bit of heaven on earth was actually named Shangri-La by the Chinese government to turn this pristine sanctuary into a tourist destination.
In this magnificent spot of the world, no one speaks about politics. Time stands still as Mao Tse Tung is still revered as a god by the elderly, and his photograph can still be seen in homes. The Dalai Lama’s picture is not seen anywhere and he is most likely not even known to exist.
The guide tells us that some villages are so remote, they do not even know who the current premier is. All they know beyond caring for their pigs and yaks is their village leader.
Banyan Tree Ringha
Our destination was secluded in the Himalayas. We were welcomed by women with white katas, ceremonial scarves of good luck, which they wrapped around our necks.
Expected to be in a remote farmland, it was very interesting to instead feel that we had arrived in another country of a generation ago. Banyan Tree Ringha’s villas were built from old farmhouses in the neighborhood, relocated log by log. The new structures were as beautiful as the original homes, preserving Tibetan culture quite well.
Stepping into our farmhouse, a two-bedroom, two-story villa where the master’s bedroom was once the storage room for barley, we found it easy to imagine how farmers lived. The villas walls were intricately carved and Tibetan art and craftwork adorned the rooms.
My daughters and I welcomed bathing in the wooden tub as it was an unexpected opportunity for us to bond and catch up with each other’s lives.
We spent four days in Ringha. On our first day, we went around the verdant plains on horseback visiting farms, admiring beautiful dwellings, and—while pony riding—enjoyed an auditory feast of chirping birds, wind rustling through the trees, cows mooing, pigs grunting.
I refused to let the sound of one of my horsewomen’s incessant texting spoil the experience. Later, we truly immersed in the local culture and had home-cooked food of yak meat and barley capped by a cup of salty yak butter tea for lunch, all prepared for us by a farmer’s wife in their home.
In the afternoon we took a stroll along the banks of the Shudugang River just below the hill from our villa, where the resort laid out a scrumptious
Holy Shudugang River
Driving through farmlands and along the Shudugang River, our guide Lobsang explained why Tibetan Buddhists do not bury their dead. They believe that while their soul reincarnates, the body returns to the four elements: earth, water, air and fire.
In a water burial, the funeral ritual is performed in open air in the Shudugang, where the body of the deceased is dismembered or cut into pieces for the fish to consume and the leftovers for the vultures and crows to partake. This way, they believe that the soul will not attempt to reanimate the corpse. While it was a very educational moment, you can be sure we never ordered fish in this part of Shangri-La.
The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery stands impressively at the foot of Foping Mountain. It is a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery belonging to the Yellow Hat sect of the Gelukpa order of the Dalai Lama.
The Fifth Dalai Lama built the Monastery in 1679 adopting a combination of Tibetan and Han architecture but fashioned as a replica of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. It is painted in distinctly Tibetan white, red and gold.
Rebuilt in 1983 after its destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it now accommodates 700 monks from the original 2,000 at its peak. In a fortuitous gathering, we witnessed around 400 monks, ages six to 60, chanting at prayer time.
It was one of the most rewarding experiences in the tour, even as the young monks—kids enrolled by their parents in the Monastery—looked at us as they chanted, making us feel how much of a distraction our presence really was.
Ringha Dabao Monastery
Located just behind the Banyan Tree and accessible by the resort’s golf cart is the Dabao Temple. Built 700 years ago and an affiliate of the Sumtseling Monastery, it was also rebuilt by the villagers after the Cultural Revolution.
Two lamas (monks) are stationed to watch over this small monastery and to pray for good fortune. After walking clockwise around the monastery as every Buddhist does, we descended walking through a stairway of prayer wheels and hundreds of Tibetan prayer flags, making us feel edified and enlightened.
White Water Terraces
On our last day, we drove to Baishuitai, the White Water Terraces. The two-hour drive from Ringha through sharp zigzag roads was stunningly beautiful. The roads were narrow and, in most instances, we were near the edge of the mountain road that had no barricade. We were fortunate that the pink rhododendrons were blooming within the alpine forest, distracting me from anxiety.
We were there during the dry season so there was not much water on the terraces. However, this tableland with a history of 300,000 years is a formation of a continual deposition of calcium carbonate that is contained in the spring water.
The surface of land is covered by the deposition that transformed into terraces as water filled over the basins, which are formed from erosive action of acidic water over time.
What is unique about this tableland is that the colors are so white and pale yellow, and with terraces so perfectly crafted that the entire picture presents a startling contrast against the Haba Snow Mountain behind it.
To have seen old China in Lijiang was pure delight, with no appropriate language to sufficiently describe it. But Shangri- La was where my heart stayed. I didn’t feel I was in China at all—by the sight of Tibetans in traditional clothes, the women in headdresses while plowing the fields with their babies on their backs, the men tending their yaks; monks whose chanting I still hear; the tinkling of single brass bells as they sway with the wind; and by the sheer power of all these to evoke an inner peace that springs forth easily, by any random spark of memory that brings my visit back in slow, vibrant living color.
Shangri-La was a name given for tourism. I should be rightfully referring to that ethereal place as Gyalthang to salute its peasants and its simple folk, for whom tourism undeniably does a great job of boosting economy.
But it is lilting Shangri-La that sings to me and keeps my heart reined in. It is the name that will forever be the refuge of my soul, the paradise in my mind and my affirmation that true, unadulterated peace is still possible on this planet.