In southwestern China's Yunnan province, not far from the borders of Burma and Tibet and less than 50 miles east of where the upper Yangtze River negotiates the Himalayan landscape with a remarkable 90-degree bend, there is a short strip of asphalt called Shangri-La Road. Shangri-La Road runs straight and true, heading due north, and, if you think about it, a street with that name should not exist. A key characteristic of Shangri-La--as introduced in James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, whose mythical setting is believed to have been inspired by Yunnan--is that there are no roads linking the mountain paradise to the outside world. The characters find their way to Shangri-La accidentally, via a plane crash and a treacherous mountain pass. It's a destination in the purest sense: a place without roads, an end without means. You're there when you find yourself there.
But what should you do if you suddenly find yourself on Shangri-La Road?The question confronted me one evening during a recent trip to the small city of Lijiang, where I arrived on the newly built road with nothing to do. The options stretched before me: the China People's Insurance Office, the China Unicom Cell Phone Service Center, the Guanfang Bowling Center. All of them were brand-new buildings of tile and glass, glistening like middle-class mirages along the street, and in the distance I could make out the electric sign of the Huaqingge Sauna & Foot Massage Center. Its two key selling points were outlined in flickering lights: "Open 24 hours a day," and "No tips accepted."
If it seemed like the folks at the Huaqingge were trying to create their own consumer-oriented Shangri-La, this was very much in the Lijiang tradition. This corner of Yunnan province combines many unlikely elements, starting with the weather and the scenery. It is known for its mild climate--even in winter the skies are clear and daytime temperatures reach the sixties. And yet the landscape is stunningly alpine. Just outside town, the perfect white cone of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towers to a height of more than 18,000 feet; a short trip westward brings one to the fast-moving upper Yangtze, known locally as the River of Golden Sands, flanked by gorges more than two miles deep. South of Lijiang, the mountains give way to the brilliant blue of Lake Er Hai, old stone houses, and deep green fields. Nowhere else in the world have I seen such a rugged landscape softened by nearly perfect weather.