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The New Shangri-la

Nearly half a century later, Lijiang has a highway and an airport and is popular with Chinese who come both to visit and to work here. The masseur from Henan told me that he hoped to one day settle in Lijiang. I told him that I was a tourist and a writer. Both of us, I realized, were there because of Lijiang's opening up and development--positive forces, many would say--and yet both of us also represented the drawbacks of modernization that Goullart had described: contamination and cultural diffusion. There weren't any Naxi at the Huaqingge, where the massage was good and cost only $5. Outside the lights were bright along Shangri-La Road. I didn't leave a tip.

Lijiang first became well-known to the Western world more than 70 years ago, when a man named Joseph Rock settled in these parts. A self-educated Austro-American linguist and botanist, Rock lived in a village outside Lijiang from 1922 to 1949, and wrote some of National Geographic's most memorable stories (even the titles--"Konka Risumgongba, Holy Mountain of the Outlaws"--are tales unto themselves). Rock enjoyed a unique period in Chinese history, after the fall of the Ch'ing dynasty but before World War II and the Communist revolution, and his writing voice rings of the Victorian age of adventurers. He was a master of the explorer's understatement: a certain calmness that shatters when unexpected details are quietly dropped. In a 1930 dispatch for National Geographic from a region called Muli, Rock describes dinner with the local ruler and his family: "The king's uncle, a dried mummy, plastered and gilded, sat in a golden chorten (shrine) in the same room where we had lunch. The king explained, "My uncle, he died sixty years ago.' Thus royalty in Muli is never lonely."

For all the changes that have swept across the region since Rock's days, his prose can still be applied to Yuhu, the village where he lived. More than a century ago, he described it as "a charmingly situated, if not overclean, Naxi village on the slopes of the mighty Lijiang snow range." One afternoon I rented a mountain bike in Lijiang and rode the 15 miles to the village, where mud streets separate simple houses of rough stone and timber. Rock's adjectives still apply—charming, not overclean—and I found his old courtyard house, which has been converted into a small museum. A sign in front proclaimed proudly: FORMER HEADQUARTERS OF THE AMERICAN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY'S YUNNAN EXPEDITION.

The caretaker, Zhao Wanyun, invited me inside; he had sharp brown eyes and a thick head of gray hair. He was 68 years old, and as a boy he'd known Rock. "He gave medicine to local people who were sick," Zhao told me. "He wouldn't take money for it. He was a good person."

Zhao walked me through the modest exhibit: Rock's ancient Stanley tools, his old dental instruments, reproductions of his photographs. Excerpts from his articles described shamanistic rituals in which Naxi holy men, known as dongba, channeled the spirits of the natural world. Some of these rituals were otherworldly--Rock saw dongba walk barefoot on red-hot plowshares and stick their hands into boiling oil--and always they were fleeting moments when the spiritual became tangible. Unfortunately, some of Rock's careful scholarship turned out to be just as fleeting. After spending 13 years carefully transcribing shipped his life's work back to America in 1944, but a Japanese plane sank the ship, and everything was lost.

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