The New Shangri-la
Published: March 2009
Despite the highways, the airport, and the brand-new buildings, the city of Lijiang still feels a lot like the legendary lost paradise. Set on a beautiful lake, surrounded by ancient villages, and inhabited by the Naxi people, the essence of this corner of Yunnan province has barely changed in the past century. So what happens when it becomes China's biggest cultural attraction?
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.
And I've never been anywhere else that feels at once so fragile and so resilient. I first traveled to Lijiang in 1994, and since then I've been back twice. Both times, the city I revisited had gone through massive changes. In 1997, Lijiang was still recovering from the earthquake of 1996, which killed 309 people and caused extensive damage to the beautiful old section of town. It was a shattering natural disaster--but one with an unexpected silver lining.
"In a way, it brought good things," said A Hui, a tourism board official and entrepreneur whom I met on my last visit. "A lot of places in China donated relief money, which helped spark development. But a more important effect was that Lijiang was in the news all the time. It was a type of publicity."
Though I had been in China for five years, this was the first time I'd heard an earthquake described as good PR. Yet the evidence is undeniable: over the past half-decade, Lijiang has established itself as a major tourist destination, and the city of 330,000 draws more than 3 million visitors a year. The Old Town, where snowmelt-fed canals wind between ancient houses of stone and tile, has been spruced up and is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This is the part of Lijiang that tourists come to see--but they visit in such numbers that modern districts of hotels and restaurants have sprawled out from the core of the Old Town. The last time I'd been to Lijiang, there was no Shangri-La Road--no Guanfang Bowling Center, no China Unicom, no Huaqingge Sauna & Foot Massage Center. Even the scenery is changing, including Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, where a chunk of the southern slope has been carved out for a new golf course. One foreign adviser told me proudly that it would be the longest golf course in the world: here in the thin Himalayan air, some of the par-fives will stretch for nearly half a mile.
Being neither a golfer nor a bowler, I took what seemed to be the next best alternative on Shangri-La Road--the foot massage. The young masseur was also an outsider; he had come from Henan province in the interior, hoping to make his fortune in Lijiang. He was working the night shift, earning $40 a month. "It's easier to get a job here than in Henan," he said. "And the weather is better. There are a lot of people here from other parts of China."
His words echoed in part the predictions of another book set in these parts, Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart. A Russian migr, Goullart settled in Lijiang in the 1940's and worked as an official in Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government. His nonfiction book, published in 1955, is a study of the Naxi, the ethnic group native to Lijiang. Originally of Tibetan descent, the Naxi settled in Yunnan as early as the 10th century and developed their own language and culture. Because Lijiang stood at a natural crossroads of highland trade, the Naxi served as intermediaries among the region's ethnic groups: Tibetans, Burmese, Chinese, Bai, and others. And although the Naxi's livelihood depended on contact with outsiders, the Naxi were nevertheless careful to regulate these interactions. Goullart describes how the Nationalist government tried to build a modern road leading to Lijiang, only to have its construction halted by locals who feared cultural destruction. "The Naxi did not want too much of Western civilization just yet," he wrote in Forgotten Kingdom. "They said that the highway would bring much more trouble than benefit into their peaceful land. The little town would be swamped by hordes of Chinese crooks and loafers, in the guise of small traders. . . . Native business and industry would be ruined by keen competition and home life disrupted by evil influences."
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.
I asked Zhao if there were still any dongba in Yuhu, and he told me that the last shaman had died in the 1980's. Later, I talked with Li Xi, director of the Dongba Museum in Lijiang, about the dwindling number of Naxi holy men.
The museum is one of the city's highlights. Set on the bank of a mountain stream, the complex comprises an exhibition hall, as well as traditional Naxi wooden houses reconstructed on the premises. "Museums in China tend to be enclosed," Li said, as we walked in the shadow of Elephant Hill. A former schoolteacher, Li, at 47, still had the lecturer's boundless energy--an energy that occasionally overwhelmed him, sending him into fits of giggles. He spoke excitedly, gesturing at the surroundings: the stream, the mountain, the rhododendrons that clung to the lower slopes. "When you came in, was it through a gate?" he asked. "No! Things are usually locked away in museums, but here I've destroyed this concept. It's all open; everything is outdoors. There's a mountain right there, and trees, and a stream. It's alive."
To prove his point, he introduced me to He Xuewen, an 80-year-old Naxi shaman who was literally living on the museum grounds. The old man spent his days in a simple cabin next to the main building, and we arrived as he was wrapping up a tutorial with a 27-year-old aspiring holy man named Mu Qilong. "I'm here because I want to spread Naxi culture," Mu told me. "Eventually I want to be a dongba, like my teacher."
Currently, there are only 10 dongba left in Lijiang County. Two of those are at the museum, and another performs rituals for tourists in the Old Town of Lijiang every night. It struck me that exactly 30 percent of the Naxi's highest-ranking spiritual men are involved in the tourist industry, and I asked Li if there was a risk of losing the living culture.
"Tourism is necessary for us to preserve it," he said. "That's how we can support this museum." Li had recently been part of a group sent to Graham and Moresby islands, north of Vancouver Island, to inspect the cultural preservation of the Haida Indians. "So much of their traditional culture was lost," he said, shaking his head. "The cemetery was the place that had most of the cultural relics. The people themselves had forgotten everything. We Naxi shouldn't become like that."
To illustrate his point, he handed me a pamphlet that outlined a plan to preserve Naxi culture. It was a classic Chinese government document, everything carefully defined and numbered, a culture outlined in 22 pages. Flipping through the first section, I noticed that the word religion was missing.
"You're right, we didn't use that word once!" Li said. "There's a debate about that. Some people say we should call it an ancient religion that is still functioning, and others say it's a post-primitive religion. But why call it anything at all?If you have a doll, do you have to put a sex organ on it and say whether it's a boy or a girl?Who cares?This is culture! Traditional culture!"
He collapsed in giggles, and I could see that I was pushing a sensitive point. China's Communist government allows only five official faiths; any other belief that tries to portray itself as a religion, such as Falun Gong, runs the risk of being suppressed and banned. Li's pamphlet was an example of preemptive wordplay: by avoiding the term religion, the Naxi were establishing themselves as a nonthreatening cultural group.
During my week in Lijiang, I could see how effectively the Naxi were honing this approach. When I first visited, in '94, Lijiang had been primarily a backpackers' destination--young, scraggly Westerners crashed in cheap hotels, ate at the cafés, and hiked in the mountains. Since then prices have risen, and officials told me that more than 95 percent of Lijiang's tourists are Chinese, many from China's growing middle and upper classes. Essentially, Lijiang has become one of China's first truly cultural attractions.
One evening I had dinner with two young Chinese from the northeast in Lijiang on a weeklong package tour. We sat outside the Sakura Café--which combined Naxi cuisine with an eclectic menu of Japanese, Korean, and Italian dishes--and watched flower-shaped lanterns float down the canal beside us. Young Chinese couples strolled along the stone sidewalk beside the water, holding hands. One of the young men, Yan Xi, worked for China Northern Airlines, and he told me that he had never been anywhere like Lijiang before. "It's an old city, but it doesn't feel old," he said. "I like the pace, the mood. There's no pressure, no rush. The moment I got here, I forgot all my worries."
The more he described his vision of Lijiang, the more it sounded like a European destination. And I realized that this is the model Lijiang is following: the carefully preserved Old Town, the flower boxes and tourist-destination maps, the new emphasis on Culture. The city's live music and shaman performances were sold out every night, and virtually any local woman working in the tourism industry dressed in the traditional Naxi cloak of blue and white. Since my first visit, Naxi tradition had become much more of a commodity--something to be outlined in a pamphlet. A number of locals told me that it was routine for Chinese outsiders to come to Lijiang and do business by passing themselves off as Naxi. In fact, nearly all of the businesses in the Old Town are now owned by outsiders, many of whom have come from Fujian province in the east.
"Most Naxi don't worry about this because they're just happy to get the money from renting the buildings," a young Naxi tour guide named He Xinyan told me. "People here have simple desires, and they don't think about these things too deeply. But to me it's a problem, because you lose some of your culture when this happens. It's shortsighted."
One of her friends pointed me to a row of wood-carving shops, advertising traditional Naxi crafts, owned by Fujianese immigrants. Many of the carvings depicted nude figures, a product typical in other parts of China that trade on minority culture. The Chinese often perceive minority groups as more highly sexed, because they are not bound by the traditional rules of Chinese society. But in fact, the Naxi are known for being even more conservative than the Chinese. In this town, such wood carvings were as out of place as I was.
I walked into the shop with an American friend, and we chatted in Chinese with the owner. He assured us that he was Naxi, and my friend, who used to live in Lijiang and spoke some of the language, decided to test him.
"How do you say to eat in Naxi?"
The shop owner looked evenly at my friend. "Meshi, meshi," he said, without hesitating.
My friend nodded and we left, thanking the owner for showing us his wares. He held the bluff well, but my friend and I both knew what he had said--"rice," in Japanese.
One day we traveled west of Lijiang, searching for Shangri-La. The Lijiang museum displayed a number of old stone road markers that mention a village called Xiang Ge Li La, which sounds like Shangri-La and may have been the inspiration for Hilton's imaginary paradise. Tracing such roots has become a local industry; a county just north of Lijiang recently changed its name from Zhongdian to Xiang GeLi La. Meanwhile, Lijiang officials proudly display their road markers as evidence for their own claims--although they are less effusive about the inscription on one of the ancient stone markers warning travelers against thieves on the road to Xiang Ge Li La.
We weren't particularly worried, though. I had discovered that, despite all of the region's changes, Lijiang and its surroundings are still ideal for wandering. A few days earlier, we had been south of Lijiang in a small city called Dali, on the banks of Lake Er Hai. Like Lijiang, Dali has become a major tourist destination, but it's still largely unchanged, and I had spent a wonderful afternoon at the market. Women in traditional headdresses were selling apples, bananas, onions, lotus roots. Men sold unrolled tobacco, a northern Yunnan specialty. There were also hemp seeds for $1 per pound--a local snack that lures more than a few young backpackers to this part of the world, where marijuana grows everywhere. And in the middle of the market, three dentists were working old foot-powered drills, based on a German model from the 1920's, carving out $5 dentures.
We set off for Shangri-La. Heading west of Lijiang, we climbed steadily, watching the white peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as we skirted its western slope. After an hour we stopped in Xiongpu, a village where one of the Xiang Ge Li La milestones had been found.
There were 60 households in Xiongpu, and the local crop was tobacco. Thirty-foot-tall earthen towers rose beside most of the houses, the sides streaked with black smoke from curing the tobacco. This year's crop had been good. Far below, the valley dropped away to the upper Yangtze. Across the river, the big mountains reached more than 20,000 feet; beyond those peaks were the highlands of Tibet. Even though we were in one of the places that claims to be Xiang Ge Li La, something about the landscape made us want to move onward.
And so we continued to Shigu, 44 miles from Lijiang, where the Yangtze makes its famous 90-degree bend. The river comes from the north, but at Shigu, where mountains rise behind the town like a defensive wall, it suddenly turns and heads eastward, into the heartland of China: Sichuan, Hunan, Jiangxi, the crowded green provinces where 350 million people live in the muddy Yangt- ze's watershed.
But in Shigu the crowds seem far away. Here the river runs green with the glacial melt of the Himalayan headwaters. There are several hundred houses in Shigu, and almost all of them are made of simple mud bricks and gray tiles--quiet streets, mottled rooftops, traditional eaves curving gracefully against the backdrop of snow-topped mountains.
We took a long walk in the hills, and on our return we stumbled on a small art gallery. It seemed to be the extent of the Shigu tourism industry. It was set at the end of the ancient Lianzi Bridge, built during the Ch'ing dynasty, with pagoda-style gates, thick iron links, and a simple inscription, CONTROL THE RIVERS, that stood like a punctuation mark at the point of the curved Yangtze.
The art shop was run by a Naxi woman named He Zhixiu, whose husband and brother-in-law painted the works that she sold. They used traditional Naxi motifs: dancing shamans, smoky mountains, strange animals emblazoned with strange colors. She told us that her husband's family were peasants who had always loved to paint, and they lived nearby, in Zhuyuan Cun. He Zhixiu smiled and talked enthusiastically about Zhuyuan Cun, which translates as "Bamboo Garden Village."
"You should visit," she told us. "The government has designated us a Civilized Village for five years now."
I asked her what exactly it meant to be a Civilized Village.
"It means there's no gambling, no drugs, and no fighting."
"Do they have these problems in other villages?" I asked.
"Other villages play mah-jongg all the time," she said.
I asked her what they did in Bamboo Garden Village instead.
"We make hats out of bamboo--that's the local specialty," she said. "And some people paint and do other arts."
It sounded very Civilized, but I wasn't convinced this was the whole story. I thought for a moment and then asked another question: "Do you drink in the village?"
"Well, yeah, we do that," she said sheepishly. Then she brightened. "It's fine to have drinking in a Civilized Village," she said.
"It's allowed. You should come anyway."
I told her that I just might. But for the moment I was perfectly happy to be right there in Shigu, on the banks of the Yangtze, somewhere in the shadowy world between Civilization and Shangri-La.
The Facts: Lijiang
The easiest way to get to Lijiang is to fly from Beijing. There are two tourist offices--one on Shangri-La Road (Tourism Building, fifth floor; 86-888/512-3432), the other in the Old Town (Tourist Service Center; 86-888/511-6666). Both can recommend English-speaking guides or drivers. But you're likely to get the best guides by asking at your hotel.
In northern Yunnan province, the rainy season runs from June to September. The rest of the year makes for more pleasant travel. Lijiang's Torch Festival, a traditional Naxi holiday celebrated with massive bonfires, takes place on the 24th day of the sixth lunar cycle (generally in July). Another major Naxi holiday is the Sandou Festival, when candlelit boats float down the Old Town's canals in memory of a Naxi hero, held annually on the eighth day of the second lunar cycle (usually in March). Lijiang is also a spectacular place to spend Chinese New Year (in late January or early February)--its residents seem to be among the most enthusiastic fireworks consumers in all of China.
In both Lijiang and Dali, the top-end hotels are rarely full; travelers should request discounts when making reservations.
Lijiang's only luxury property is the Guanfang Hotel (86-888/518-8888; doubles from $120). A good traditional alternative is the Ancient Town Inn (86-888/518-9030; doubles from $30), a courtyard complex in the old part of the city.
Dali's best hotel is the Asia Star Hotel, or Yaxing Da Fandian (86-872/267-9999; doubles from $108), at the foot of the Cangshan Mountain range. Dali's Old Town has several courtyard hotels that are less comfortable but have more character than the Asia Star; these are favored by younger travelers. The Old Dali Inn (86-872/267-0382; doubles from $15) is a good bet.
Compared to the cuisine in other parts of China, the fare in Lijiang and Dali is bland and somewhat heavy. But inexpensive cafés that can be found in each city's Old Town offer fusion cooking that combines local elements with Western, Chinese, and Tibetan flavors. In Lijiang, Mishi Café (52 Mishi Alley; 86-888/518-7605) serves Western and local dishes (the owner, A Hui, speaks English) and Sakura Café (Xinhua Rd.) combines traditional Naxi cuisine with Japanese, Korean, and Italian food.
ROUND DALI AND LIJIANG
A number of villages around Dali have weekly markets. One of the best is held Mondays in Shaping, 19 miles north of Dali. Hotels and cafés in Lijiang rent mountain bikes, an excellent way to see the countryside (although the altitude makes for a challenging workout). Take the road north of Lijiang to the villages of Baisha and Nguluko, Joseph Rock's former home. Baisha has become something of a tourist trap, but neighboring Shuhe is relatively unspoiled. In Shigu, boats leave the dock twice a day for Tiger Leaping Gorge (the journey takes a little less than an hour each way). The region's best-known hike is also around the gorge. Cafés and hotels in Lijiang sell maps for the two-day trek; hikers spend the night in Walnut Grove, a tiny village that faces the sheer cliff wall of the gorge. You can also drive along the gorge on a recently constructed road, just north of Shigu.
The drive from Shigu to Xiang Ge Li La--formerly Zhongdian--is spectacular, crossing the Yangtze just before Tiger Leaping Gorge. What Xiang Ge Li La lacks in old-world charm, the surrounding countryside makes up for. Most residents are Tibetan; the town's main attraction is the massive Songzanlin monastery, home to 400 Tibetan Buddhist monks.