A portion of an FMCA member couple’s journey in China was spent dreaming of “” and driving toward “” the perfect city featured in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon.
By Harriet Halkyard, F357638
The road to Shangri-La was a four-lane highway where drivers were admonished to keep 200 meters (more than 600 feet) from the car in front. The road to Shangri-La was two narrow lanes of blacktop with no shoulder. The road to Shangri-La was cobbled for mile upon mile through sweeping mountains covered with sugarcane. And, the road to Shangri-La was dirt, which turned into mud that reached the axles of the motor coach when it rained.
The mythical place described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, a utopia of peace and eternal youth, was said to be in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains of southwest China. So we figured, how hard could it be to drive around China? We had traveled all over the United States in our own type C motorhome, and had even taken it on a trip from Houston, Texas, to Panama and back.
I did some research and eventually located a rental agency that had a 22-foot type C available for $150 (U.S. dollars) per day. The rental fee included the services of a driver and an interpreter, as well as fuel and tolls. So, we booked a trip in August/September 2007 that for 26 days would take us from Kunming, in Yunnan province, to Lhasa, Tibet. Shangri-La was said to be a town called Zhongdian, in Yunnan province, located along the way.
A Different Kind Of Home On Wheels
When we saw the motorhome we’d rented, our hearts sank. It was very well used and not everything was in working order. But it was the only RV available, so we had no choice but to take it or go home. Fortunately, our driver turned out to be outstanding at keeping everything working and smiled throughout the stiffest challenges the worn-out vehicle and the road presented.
The diesel-powered motorhome was built on an Iveco chassis and had been made in China. As is typical in the Orient, the shower took up the entire bathroom area. It had no cooking facilities other than a hot plate, but that was not a problem. Eating out along the way was easy and very inexpensive.
The driver and interpreter did not stay with us in the motorhome at night. We usually parked in places near hotels, and they stayed there. We saw no campsites or other motorhomes on our journey.
Our route took us on what used to be the southern branch of the Silk Road, which once linked the Chinese Imperial Court with the Roman Empire. The locals refer to this southern stretch as the “Tea-Horse Road,” as the trail was used to bring Tibetan horses into southern China in exchange for tea.
Our route went northwest out of Kunming. Hills covered in sugarcane in various stages of growth looked like a patchwork of innumerable greens. The land is divided equitably, as each farmer has a parcel near the village and some farther away, which creates myriad little plots that hug the contours of the slopes. We could look down onto farms a thousand feet below.
The cobbled road was the width of the motorhome, so we had to pull over when any traffic came along. As our driver navigated under giant drooping bamboo, his cell phone occasionally rang, to the tune of “It’s a Small World.”
We stopped for lunch in the small town of Ling Di, and I immediately wandered into the market. Markets are fascinating for their unfamiliar foods and rich local color. Farmers and indigenous people, often wearing their traditional clothes, come to town to sell their produce and crafts. I was glad I was vegetarian when I saw the comb of wriggling larvae as big as my thumb for sale. But there were also peanuts, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
On my way back to the motor coach, I spied a couple of women using their fingers to scrape the skin off freshly boiled new potatoes. They smiled and waved at me to sit down on the six-inch stool between them. I did so and was immediately rewarded with a hot potato. The women were laughing and smiling as though a celebrity had joined them. A couple of potatoes later, my husband, John, appeared. He had decided to return to the motorhome rather than eat bugs with our translator and driver.
I took out my postcards from home and handed them around. A crowd had gathered, and the pictures were passed from old men to young children and then returned. We were invited to move a couple of feet from the street to the official restaurant on the sidewalk where cubes of tofu were being braised over hot coals beside the pre-boiled potatoes. We were given a bowl of noodles and the proprietor fanned the coals and passed us more food than we could possibly eat. The meal was great, and cost 75 cents for the two of us. More importantly, we had made friends.
The following day we arrived in the town of Dian Zhi hoping to meet some of the people of the Yi Che minority group. I looked in the little shops that lined the square and came to a dressmaking establishment where a group of women were sewing. They smiled and beckoned me in out of the sun. I sat on a little stool among them as they chatted and continued with their sewing. They enjoyed my pictures of longhorn cattle and Texas bluebonnets, viewing them with smiles and giggles. If it had been market day, they would have been too busy to entertain me, but there I was, again an honored guest.
The roads in these parts of China were not well built, and landslides frequently covered the blacktop with rocks and dirt. One day we had to change directions three times, which put us days behind schedule. None of it really mattered, as we simply enjoyed whatever we were passing.
As we progressed northward toward Shangri-La, we also reached higher altitudes and the sultry air became more comfortable. The town of Dali, approximately halfway between Kunming and Zhongdian (Shangri-La), is the same latitude as Miami, Florida, but because it is at an elevation just above 6,000 feet, the climate is springlike year-round. Dali is an ancient walled city dating back to 1382 that, 3,000 years ago, was called the “Kingdom of the Central Plains.” Today it is considered one of the leading cultural cities in the country.
The coach was driven through a massive gate and parked under the 20-foot wall. From there we walked into the center of the old town each day, which was filled with charming little old homes and shops, and plentiful restaurants.
In this area the traditional craft is tie-dying, and the locals produce fabric, primarily made into table linens, with a variety of intricate designs ranging from fish to flowers. We filled the motor coach with linens, along with silk and cashmere scarves, and hand-woven and embroidered cushion covers.
A mile north of Dali are the Three Pagodas, which date back to the ninth century and are among the oldest structures in southwest China. Two pagodas are smaller than the third, and from a distance they appeared to be made of delicately carved ivory. The fantastic clouds that kiss the mountains behind them have names such as “Waiting for husband Cloud” and “Jade Belt Cloud.” These three pagodas make up the Chong-Sheng temple.
One of the benefits of traveling in the coach is your own clean bathroom. Public bathrooms anywhere in the world are not the most pleasant places, and China is no exception. I was caught short in Dali, and so I handed over the required change at a facility and prepared to hold my breath. The attendant pointed down the row of stalls where there was no distinction for men or women. Inside one was the familiar porcelain footpad and the hole to squat over. To my surprise, the stall was scrupulously clean and also had its own TV set playing.
Attractive as Dali was, it was not Shangri-La as described by James Hilton. We continued north, with the Myanmar (formerly Burma) border about 70 miles to our left.
The road was a six-lane freeway at this point, but as with all the roads we traveled in China, it had no shoulders. This makes it a hairy endeavor for the locals to repair breakdowns. They will disassemble a complete engine or driveshaft right where their vehicle stops, spreading out the parts and taking up a full lane.
It is easy to understand why the next town, Lijiang, is listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site, as it is truly a living part of history. Entrapped amid breathtaking mountains, its gray slate roofs rippled like waves with cresting eaves beneath the brilliant clear blue sky. Narrow cobbled lanes led to wooden bridges that crossed streams of snowmelt where we looked down at golden carp locals had released as a gesture of goodwill.
Lijiang Old Town has no vehicles, but the alleys are crowded with pedestrians exploring the shops that overflow with locally made crafts. The little lanes are steep as they lead down to the open square where local women perform traditional dances each morning. An ancient carving in a stone found at the town indicates that it is Shangri-La, but the town had no Buddhist temple as described by Hilton, so we continued on our search, this time to the town of Zhongdian to the north.
When we were in Kunming, we were 40 miles or so north of the Vietnamese border. Now we were in the foothills of the Himalayas. And it was cold.
So, in Zhongdian we purchased down jackets. They cost less than $10 each. At this point, our driver began to whistle “Jingle Bells.” Perhaps I should not have been surprised when he paused to avoid a garbage truck that played a backup alarm to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”
Zhongdian does have a grand Buddhist temple high on the hill that looks like a miniature version of the Portola in Lhasa. We climbed up its 200 steps, but the temple was cold and uninspiring . . . .
This surely could not be Shangri-La, the romantic utopia where no one grows old. It turns out that we’d believed a marketing slogan. The Chinese government calls Zhongdian “Shangri-La” in hopes of spurring tourism.
But we were told we could find Shangri-La in Tibet. So, we continued north to see where the road would take us.
From there, the Halkyards continued on to Tibet and completed their journey by dropping off the motorhome in Lhasa. They never did find Shangri-La, but they had a fascinating trip.
If you’d like to consider renting a motorhome in China, or would like to read more about their excursion, visit the Halkyards’ Web site, www.99daystopanama.com, and click on “China and Tibet (2007).”