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The New Shangri-la

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.

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