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.