On the Bus to Shangri-La

Bus Station
The bus station at Lijiang

(A story from our 2007 visit to China)

“Is this bus going to Qiaotuo?”
“Shangri-La,” says one of the seated passengers.
Confused, we get off and return to the terminal to ask the gate agent.
“Is this the bus to Qiaotuo?” Mark points through the glass to the bus sitting outside.
“Yes. Qiaotuo.”
“They said Shangri-La.”
“Yes. After Qiaotuo.”
We return to the bus and take our seats. We are departing from Lijiang, located in the northwest tip of China’s Yunnan Province. Our destination is a small town farther northwest. The final destination of this bus, however, is indeed the town of Zhong Dian, now known — renamed by the Chinese government to encourage tourism — as “Shangri-La.”
We are, in fact, on the bus to Shangri-La.
If you’re not familiar with the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La, check out this video clip from the 1937 Frank Capra film, “Lost Horizon,” based on the novel by James Hilton:
Lost Horizon Movie Clip
Hilton’s characters did not, of course, ride a Greyhound to their Himalayan paradise. They were kidnapped by air. Not that it matters. Nor is this bus a Greyhound. We have ourselves stumbled onto this connection to Shangri-La, and I am delighted by the unexpected juxtaposition.
It is tempting to travel beyond Qiaotuo, just so we can tell the folks back home that we actually went to Shangri-La. We might even get away with the subterfuge in some cases. But Qiaotuo is the getting–off point for our goal — a hike in the foothills of the Himalaya of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a canyon on the Yangtze River (known locally as Golden Sands or Jinsha River), one of the world’s deepest river gorges.
With my husband, Bill, and 15-year-old son, Johnny, I am in China to visit my older son, Mark, who is studying in Dali, and to have some adventures. We are succeeding on both counts.
(Mark’s future wife, Jessica, and two of her schoolmates accompanied us for part of the trip as well.)

Jessica, Mark and Johnny taking a break in the shade of a watchtower along the Great Wall
Jessica, Mark and Johnny taking a break in the shade of a watchtower along the Great Wall

During our first 10 days here we hiked a seven-mile stretch of the Great Wall, from Jinshanling to Simatai, in June’s 100-degree heat. We braved the thick, dirty air of Beijing to traverse the Forbidden City until we found Starbuck’s (It’s there although no external sign is allowed, although I hear it has since been closed) and drank a Frappucino right in the middle of the former Chinese imperial palace. We paid a sobering visit to Tian An Men Square and tried to behave as if it were a tourist attraction. We even ate real Peking Duck.

From the watchtower
View of the Great Wall from one of its watchtowers
Starbuck's Forbidden City
Frappucinos in the Forbidden City

Then, we took a night train to Shanghai. I repeat . . . a night train to Shanghai. There, cooled by the river breeze, we recovered from the culture shock of Beijing, staying in a charming 19th century European hotel and jogging on “The Bund,” the city’s famous street-now-promenade along the banks of the Huang Pu river.

Astor House at night
The Astor House Hotel, Shanghai

We looked up an old haunt of writer and fellow Oklahoman Louis L’Amour’s from his days in Shanghai in the 1920’s. The address is still there, near the river front and away from Shanghai’s tourist areas, but not the Café Olympic (“First Class Restaurant and Cabaret” according to a card found in L’Amour’s scrapbook). It is now called the “Lady’s Club Bar” and I suspect it is much the same sort of “establishment.” We saw a side of Shanghai far different from the popular (and incredibly crowded) tourist sites of Nanjing Road and Yu Yuan Garden, exploring back streets and alleys where the “real people” live.
After three pleasant days in Shanghai, we flew to Kunming, capital of the Yunnan Province in southern China. Because of its year-round temperate weather, Kunming is often referred to as the “City of Eternal Spring.” We rode a bus four hours through the mountains to Dali City, where Mark studies Chinese at the Dali Medical College. After a couple of days acclimating and getting to know Dali, we boarded a bus for another four-hour ride to Lijiang.
“Leave the driving to us” takes on a whole new meaning in the mountain roads of south central China and requires a whole different level of intestinal fortitude than cruising along the interstates of the U.S. Traffic flow in China is what I can only characterize as “fluid.” Where in the U.S. we are governed by things like lanes, traffic signals, speed limits (well, to some degree), “getting there first” seems to be the only governance in China. This means a whole new level of trust. And lots of honking.
Once on the bus from Lijiang to Qiaotuo (and of course Shangri-La), we are grateful to be on the last leg of the convoluted trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge. On the roadside, workers cultivate rice, corn and potatoes, and young women tote their one child in papoose-like arrangements. The bus stops frequently to pick up other passengers, put water on the brakes, change drivers, and for no apparent reason.
At Qiaotuo, finally off the bus, we walk to the trailhead at 6,000 feet elevation and set off with about a dozen other hikers. Three Chinese with two horses offer their services, but none of the hikers succumb to the temptation to ride rather than walk. They follow along anyway.

TLG Trailhead
Bill, me, Johnny and Mark at the Tiger Leaping Gorge trailhead
Horse Followers
Horsemen on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail

The trail runs high on the north side of the nine-mile gorge, which is shaded by the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain, both about 18,000 feet in height. Our route snakes through terraced farmland and along precipitous cliffs as the Jinsha rushes far below. We hike uphill for an hour and a half, thankful for mild temperatures and intermittent light rain.
“Chew gently at first, the rice has stones,” cautions a fair-haired young woman sitting at a table on the terrace of the Naxi Family Guest House, where we stop for lunch. She and her male companion are Israeli and she is right. We sit at the table next to them and learn the next part of the hike is the most difficult. Right again.

IMG_0492
A long trudge uphill

After lunch we continue toward the summit and I wish for my trekking poles, which stayed at home because we carried on all our baggage and trekking poles don’t go over well with the TSA. In spite of the load and the lack of poles, we conquer the infamous “28 Bends” switchbacks handily as we approach the 8,759-foot summit. A local man offers a view at the top for a few kwai but we decline, later to learn it would have been well worth the small investment. After the summit, the hike is an easy downhill but it is another couple of hours before we reach our stopping place for the night.
The terrain and the views become increasingly beautiful — shady forest, spectacular drop-offs. Remarkably, we are now alone on the trail, although power lines mar the concept of wilderness. Our horsemen friends had followed along unobtrusively for some distance, but gave up just below the summit. There are three “English” (other white people) behind us and we have decided to stay a good distance ahead so we can have first dibs on beds at the Halfway House. As it turns out, we beat them but just barely, hiking a little over 11 miles in six and a half hours.

Halfway House
The Halfway Guest House

The Halfway Guest House clings to the steep hillside, a cluster of stone buildings with worn tile roofs. A sign advertises “Constant Hot Showers and Clean Toilets,” the latter being the most appealing at this point in our trip (See The Art of the Squatty Potty). We enter through heavy wooden doors and descend a brick staircase lined with bougainvillea, hydrangea and geranium. Here it is quiet, pristine, and nearly empty, as much a contrast to Beijing as if we had actually passed through the gateway to Shangri-La.

Johnny Entry Halfway House
Johnny at the entry to the Halfway House

We pass a comfortable night in clean beds, enjoying the chill in the air at this elevation — just under 8,000 feet. The views (even from the toilet) — overlooking Tiger Leaping Gorge and directly across to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain — add to our enchantment with the lodge.

Cleanest WC and Best View
Cleanest Toilet in China . . . and Best View!

In the morning we linger on the terrace over stout mugs of coffee (a luxury in China) as the sun rises over jagged peaks. A breakfast of banana pancakes completes the pleasant experience and we set off from this oasis to finish our hike, now only a brief walk down the mountainside for a ride back to Qiaotuo.

Bill enjoys coffee on the terrace at the Halfway House
Bill enjoys coffee on the terrace at the Halfway House

Perhaps this modern-day Shangri-La thing is more than Chinese tourist propaganda? Here on Tiger Leaping Gorge, you may actually experience a slice of such paradise. In fact, some believe that Hilton was inspired to create Shangri-La in part by the writings of Joseph Rock, a botanist whose adventures here in the Yunnan Province and in Tibet were documented in National Geographic Magazine from 1922 to 1935. Whether or not it’s true, it’s easy to believe on the terrace of the Halfway House, watching the sun rise.

Gateway to ShangriLa
Tiger Leaping Gorge — Gateway to Shangri-La?

Learn more:
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2009/05/parallel-rivers/jenkins-text
http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Horizon-Novel-James-Hilton/dp/0062113720
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1083

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