James Hilton conceived Shangri-La as an escape from the troubled 1930s, a fable of a spiritual utopian sanctuary. I first read Lost Horizon in 2011 on my first ever backpacking trip through Yunnan, China. I was captivated by Hilton’s vision of meditative llamas in secluded mountain temples. But when I finally reached Zhongdian, 6 years later, it had been renamed Shangri-La to boost tourism. Would it be the place of solace I had yearned for?
Travelling to South West China in 2017, tourism is now deeply rooted here when once it wasn't. I feared what may have become of the Yunnan I loved. Sadly, Zhongdian's old town was destroyed in a huge fire in 2014 with devastating losses. I spoke with the manager of a Tibetan gallery who told me of the loss of 7th century Thangkas’, irreplaceable intricate paintings of Buddha. The old town has been rebuilt in haste, underpinning all my frustrations with modern China, a new city rising like a phoenix from Zhongdian’s ashes. Any sense of wonderment or spirituality has been lost in it’s rapid construction. This is not the mountainous refuge I dreamt of. But mere hours from the Tibetan border, my search for Shangri-La will continue.
The drive North takes 5 hours up a winding cliff edge towards Deqin. Expectedly, it’s people are fewer, hardier and of Sino-Tibetan decent. Fuller, browner faces, their gaze fall heavily on me, few western tourists make it here. Feilai Si is recommend for it’s view point of the Meili Snow Mountains and the towering 6,740 metre Khawakarpo, which the Austrian-American Botanist Joseph Rock described as “the most glorious peak my eyes were ever privileged to see”. Awestruck by the view, my host spoke of a hiking path to Yubeng, a secluded village at the foot of the same mountain range. The next morning a friendly faced Tibetan ferries a full carpool of walkers to Ninong, a town which straddles the Mekong River. A tough 15km uphill trek to Yubeng is accompanied by pine forests, granite peaks and a pounding downward stream.
In frozen Yubeng I spot yaks in the mist and pigs trampling mud as the rising sun slices off the mountain tops, soundtracked by the bells that ring abstractly from the livestock’s necks. It’s November and snow has fallen,only a handful of tourists are here. This isn’t the China I know anymore. Yubeng’s hikes visit sacred waterfalls and frozen lakes, they feel like pilgrimages. Yubeng is a hidden destination free from China's fixation with tourism, with a rich balance between local culture, Buddhism and nature.
Hilton’s words resonate timelessly here and in this moment Yubeng has become my spiritual Shangri-La. My utopia is fleeting, a special balance of time, space and psyche. Shangri-La isn’t one place, but a time in life where true peace is found. Get off the beaten path and you may find this place. Your own Shangri-La, my Yubeng.
I would strongly recommend reading the story that brought Shangri-La to public knowledge, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon
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