I was already in awe of the jaw-dropping landscape of mountains, gorges and neat terraced villages perched on remote plateaux. Was this place, just miles from Myanmar and Tibet, the mythical paradise in James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizons?
The Quest Continues
Meili, a hamlet of five families, was next. At 12,500 ft, the Songstam lodge faces the Meili Xue Shan Mountains crowned by Mt. Kawagebo peaking at 22,000 ft. I was there two nights so had two chances to see sunrise over a mountain often enveloped in misty shrouds.
First Personal Shangri-La
Clutching a mug of hot ginger tea I stood on the roof of the lodge waiting for sunrise. The mountains were crystalline against a purple backdrop. Could anything be more beautiful? Then magically the very tip of Mt. Kawagebo shone golden. As I attempted to capture the beauty it shone a deeper gold. Light washed pink, purple and silver across the glaciers and snow fields. I was spellbound. It was a Shangri-La moment.
Over breakfast of fresh barley bread, honeycomb and steaming congee, (rice porridge), we discussed the day’s options and decided to explore the sacred mountain.
From the base we hiked with pilgrims up the rocky trail through forests to the foot of glaciers and ice walls at 12,000 ft where we had a picnic lunch. It was steep, in one section we climbed 1,000 ft in one mile, according to My Altitude. Prayer flags fluttered among the trees and on small shrines. “Tashi Delek” was the greeting as we met pilgrims, the Tibetan equivalent of Namaste.
Benzilan, a Second Shangri-La
Two days later we arrived at Benzilan. At 8,000 ft the air was balmy and climate quite different due to warm monsoon currents from Myanmar and India. Cactus sprouted spiny pads among wild cosmos, hollyhocks, dahlias, delphinium and roses. Village homes were surrounded by rainbows of marigolds. We sat in the lodge garden under wisteria and grapevines.
High above us was a remote village. Until six years ago, when a narrow concrete road was constructed, the only access was by horse. We walked the old horse trail. Autumn foliage glowed yellow and red, swags of moss were prayer flags of the forest.
There were swaths of rhododendron and azaleas, iris grew by the stream and in meadows cobalt alpine gentians. The only sounds were rushing water – the trail followed a stream – call of a bulbul bird in a pine tree, and as we neared the village the rhythmic clinking of yak bells
The unique micro-climates of Yunnan make it a plant-hunter’s paradise. James Hilton described tropical fruits such as mangoes in a mountain setting. Was Benzilan the inspiration for Shangri-La? For us the day on the mountain was a personal Shangri-La.
Last stop on our journey was the city now named Shangri-La. In a canny move to create a hot tourist destination, Beijing renamed Zhongdian in 2001 with the coveted name. At 10,000 ft, Zhongdian was formerly a trading center on the Southern Silk Road, or Tea Horse Road. It has the requisite Lamasery/monastery and is surrounded by some of the worlds deepest and most dramatic gorges.
The jury is out on the exact location of James Hilton’s inspiration. Some say he was influenced by Austrian-American biologist Joseph Rock, whose accounts of travel in Tibet and China were published by National Geographic just before Hilton’s book was written. Others say the name was taken from Shambala – a sanskrit word meaning place of peace. For sure Hilton coined the phrase Shangri-La.
Shangri La Discovered
As for the quest for Shangri-La? Did we find it? The answer is resoundingly affirmative. It was sunrise over Mt. Kawagebo, following the horse trail to a remote village and the crunch of frost under my feet as I photographed Ganden Monastery in the early-morning sun. It is recall of time spent in a truly magnificent part of the world. The memories will linger.
Far away, at the very limit of distance, lay range upon range of snow-peaks, festooned with glaciers and floating, in appearance, upon vast levels of cloud. – Lost Horizon by James Hilton