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Finding Shangri-la

  • At the top of a hill in Shangri-la, hundreds of rainbow colored flags blow in the wind. The flags are used to bless a certain area. Each flag bears an inscription, which the Tibetans believe will be carried away by the winds to spread peace and good…
    At the top of a hill in Shangri-la, hundreds of rainbow colored flags blow in the wind. The flags are used to bless a certain area. Each flag bears an inscription, which the Tibetans believe will be carried away by the winds to spread peace and good fortune.
Published June 11. 2011 09:06AM

(Editor's Note: This is the third of a four-part series)

Gone were the jungles. Gone were the gorges. Flat plains of brown replaced lush fields and rolling hills of green. The snow-capped peaks of the day before were still there, but instead of isolated mountains dotting the landscape, these new peaks were the fringes of the continent-spanning Himalayas. This was Shangri-la, on the Tibetan Plateau in the northwest of China's Yunnan Province.

Or perhaps I should call it Zhongdian. To capitalize on the magnetic effect that naming a town or region after British novelist James Hilton's famous fictional locale in "Lost Horizon" has on tourists, the Chinese government changed the name Zhongdian to Shangri-la (San-ge-li-la in Chinese) in 2001.

Whatever you want to call it, I was there to see Tibetans and enjoy the local cuisine: yak dumplings, yak kebabs, yak steak, yak cetera.

After checking into our Tibetan-style guesthouse - our rooms were modestly decorated with a few not-to-flashy wall hangings, hard wood beds and walls made of centimeter thick plywood - Layla, my travel companion, and I walked to the top of a nearby hill to get a look at the city.

Nestled between small, barren hills, Shangri-la looked like an oasis of civilization among desolate surroundings. Larger mountains loomed off in the distance. The sun was hidden behind a sea of clouds. The air was cool, if a bit thin, because of Shangri-la's altitude, which made it both enjoyable and cumbersome while hiking. The city's old town stood out from the modernized sections, the taller buildings of new overlooking the cozy village of old.

The old city was nice for shopping - I picked up a few bags of yak jerky for my colleagues - but Layla and I wanted to see some of the outlying areas where authentic Tibetan culture almost certainly remained alive. We found a small travel group and hired a guide to take us on a culture-themed trek to some villages outside Shangri-la.

The first Tibetan structure we came across was a stupa, an all white man-made construction that looked like a swirly McDonald's ice cream. Stupas, the guide explained, are built to ward off evil spirits. If a disaster occurs somewhere - in the case of the stupa before us, there was a mudslide a few years ago that killed some people - a stupa is built to deter evil spirits from returning and causing similar destruction.

We walked on through hills and valleys, all barren and void of anything green. Occasionally, a random yak would wander onto our path and grunt a few times before lumbering off. At a few sparsely populated farming villages, the locals put their hands up in front of their faces and waved me away. They had spotted my camera, even though I wasn't pointing it at them in some cases.

Near the end of our hike, we stopped at another quiet village for a yak butter tea and yak cheese break with a Tibetan family. Although my stomach churned at the very mention of these local favorites, I knew not eating the food or drinking the tea would be rude.

The village seemed to have more cows and pigs wandering around than people.

Like the landscape outside, the Tibetan family's house was void of anything fancy or exciting. There was one main room with a large wooden pole in the middle. The floors, also wood, were uncarpeted. A large cast iron stove sat in the corner with two wooden benches on each side. The Tibetan family, three women and a newborn child, rolled out their best wooden couch mats for us. A few neighbors stopped by to see these foreign oddities who were so interested in walking from Shangri-la to see these humble dwellings.

Then out came the yak butter milk tea and yak cheese. I sipped and nibbled sparingly, holding the teacup in my hands and moving it to my mouth every so often to create the facade of drinking. With each faux sip, I smiled and received a few smiles from the family.

When we finally left the house, my face had started to hurt. An after effect of the yak cheese? Unlikely. It must be sunburn, but to what extent I didn't know. Later, when I looked at photos, I noticed my face was beet red. The sun hadn't been shining, but Shangri-la's high altitude allowed ultraviolet rays to easily give me a new charbroiled complexion. This would explain why most Tibetans are an earthen brown: their skin has been permanently tanned by the unrelenting sun.

The upside was that I had started my summer tan a bit earlier than most years. I just hoped it wouldn't be too much of a burden on the rest of the trip, especially since our next destination was the lakeside city of Dali and its touristy, yet relaxing, environs.

Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at He can be reached at

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