Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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Lost Horizon

Is this corner of remote China the real Shangri-La?

The promise of Shangri-La ranks at the top of every travel huckster's hit parade. With its dream-like image of a paradise among snowy Himalayan peaks, its vision of harmony among peoples amid the triumph of wisdom, there's no shortage of places claiming to be the mythical Lost Horizon.

Bhutan and Tibet are among the top contenders for the role. But the new kid on the Shangri-La block is 200 kilometres east of Tibet, in China's Yunnan Province. Shangri-La or not, it makes for an enthralling journey.

The road sweeps from rampantly exotic tribal markets to hip backpacker enclaves, and from the great U-turn that ushers the Yangtze River across China to the Tibetan Highlands.

While this corner of Yunnan is home to many ethnic Tibetans, the highlands are not the same Tibetan Plateau where Beijing's crushing political dominance and deplorable environmental policies continue to earn China global condemnation. The Han Chinese have worked to suppress local cultures here, but the region's unique flavours have so far survived this attempted hegemony.

Yunnan is not a household word yet, but savvy Europeans are quickly discovering it as the most dynamic corner of the Middle Kingdom. Easily the most varied of China's provinces, it represents the second opening up of China, as once inaccessible realms reveal themselves to the world, complete with paved highways and luxury hotels.

I begin in the eternally spring-like Yunnanese capital of Kunming. This is one of my favourite Chinese cities, although it's modernizing at a pace that leaves me spinning. Mirror-faced skyscrapers trumpet 21st-century prosperity. Billboards for Armani and Pierre Cardin seem to signal China's conversion from communism to consumerism.

Kunming is a must-do for the itinerant foodie, if only to sample the celebrated Yunnanese ham similar to prosciutto (someone will say Marco Polo, who passed this way in 1254, took that back to Italy, too). Yunnanese cooks deep-fry fat peppers until they're sweet and juicy. They infuse minced pork with explosive red and green chilies -- just to remind you this is racy southern fare, not the artfully bland Cantonese served to Westerners.

I find evidence of neither a legendary Yunnanese dish -- elephant trunk braised in soy -- or the deep-fried baby pine needles I recall from a previous visit. Score one for the elephants.

Departing the city, my guide and I follow the historic Burma Road north to Dali. We enter a terrain of red earth and green hills and the tile-roofed villages of the Yi, a minority people who once terrified and enslaved the Han Chinese. This rigidly stratified slave society endured until the 1950s, when Mao's victories put an end to it.

Dallying in Dali
There are more than 25 minority groups living in Yunnan. For centuries they preserved their own identities, still conspicuous in the Technicolor costumes and dazzling jewellery they favour. Without borders or armies, the tribes maintain their own languages, religions, customs and festivals. They're entities as distinct as any nation.

I'm amazed at the excellent highway and the tunnels blasted through mountains, transforming China into a world tourism juggernaut. Such, I guess, is the benefit of unlimited manpower. I can see thousands of men with picks and shovels laying a cable all the way to Lhasa.

Dali sits on the shores of Lake Erhai in the foothills of the Cangshan Mountains. Three ninth-century pagodas are tourist attractions. So is the old city, completely restored in 1996, its historic gates and cobblestoned main street turned into a pedestrian mall. Drop-out yanguedze (the venerable term translating as "foreign devils") congregate at "foreigners' street" for beer, pizza and haggles with hawkers bent under their loads.

I'm lucky to be here for the Monday morning Shaping Market, a rambunctious weekly affair 30 kilometres out of town. I am a market junkie. I never tire of the timeless buying and selling, always an incomparable revelation of the human landscape. Shiny, perfect eggplants and fistfuls of coriander change hands at a furious pace. Mao buttons and statues are hot items, as they are elsewhere in China. The late Great Helmsman might whirl in his grave to discover he's become a pop-culture icon.


Heritage and Hendrix
The Bai people, who've inhabited the area for 3000 years, are easily recognized by their exquisite indigo batiks. The ascent out of Dali brings a sudden change of scenery, reminding me of the Scottish Highlands, only with rice paddies flickering like mirrors in the noonday sun. We leave the territory of the Bai and enter that of the Naxi, a traditionally matriarchal people descended from Tibetan nomads.

The Naxi capital is Lijiang, another surprise on China's new tourist circuit. Painstakingly reconstructed after a devastating earthquake in 1996, the town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a magnet for Chinese tourists who are exploring their own country with gusto. The French and Italians, always on to a hot spot before North Americans have ever heard of it, settle in here for six months at a stretch, bunking in $10-a-night hotels and sustaining themselves in swish little cafÄs flanking the canals that render Lijiang (groan) the Venice of the East.

Under the willow trees, restaurants with subdued Western-style lighting and pretty batik tablecloths proffer not only fried rice and Chinese dumplings, but hamburgers, lasagna, fried chicken, schnitzels, burritos, French fries, apple cobbler and snake: "You can drink the blood and bile with Chinese rice wine," says one menu, "and take away the skin as a souvenir!"

Music comes courtesy of Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. What a place.

The rhythm of hundreds of small canals becomes a kind of sedative here. Narrow side streets reveal wooden houses in ox-blood hues, flowers sprouting from the eaves. I like Longevity Street, with its 500-year-old stone bridges, age-old nooks and crannies and the comforting textures of weathered wood and faded brick.

A meandering lane spirals upwards through cobblestoned streets to Lion Hill and the 33-metre-high Longevity Pagoda. An exhausting climb for the chronically unfit, the pagoda boasts a grand view of the panoply of Lijiang's tile rooftops. The maze of the old town assumes a special grandeur here.

Tonight I take in a performance of the "three olds:" music written 1200 years ago, 700-year-old musical instruments and 80-year-old musicians. The Naxi Music Concert -- an ensemble of ancients in resplendent silks and long white beards -- demonstrate how they knocked audiences dead in Europe and Japan.

Naxi music is much in the mode of Chinese classical, but the performance is ultra-casual: Chinese audience members come and go freely. Cell phones jangle. Spitting is in surround sound. Some of the aged musicians doze off in mid-performance. It's crazy and I love it.

The conductor is a man named Xuan Ke. He brought the venerable musicians together in 1986, after spending 21 years in prison during the Cultural Revolution. Just as remarkably, the musicians had buried their instruments to save them during that tumultuous time.

Xuan Ke also happens to be the author of the report which identifies northwest Yunnan as Shangri-La.

Leaping Tiger, Lazy Tourist
Lijiang translates as beautiful river, a reference to the nearby 180-degree turn of the Yangtze as it flows out of Tibet and twists north and east to Sichuan Province on its long journey to the East China Sea. Twenty years ago, on my first visit to China, I'd spent 10 days on a slow boat on the Yangtze. Now I encounter the great river again at Leaping Tiger Gorge. At a lookout 200 metres above the river I see the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, its 5500-metre-high summit a fistful of broken glass jabbing an unsuspecting sky.

It is 1000 steps down to the river's edge and another 1000 back up. In typical Chinese tourist style, for about $8, Canadians can be carried all the way up in a sedan chair borne by grunting locals. Occasionally, I am told, these hard-working souls drop their passengers, who then bounce unmerrily downwards.

Squeezing past rock slides on the narrow mountain road, we follow the upper Yangtze part of the way to Zhongdian, a region known as "Little Tibet." Beijing claims it is actively preserving Tibetan culture here and we spot our first Tibetan village 45 kilometres from town. It is autumn, and the grassy wildflowers splash the meadows with crimson.

At last, at an altitude of 3380 metres, we reach Zhongdian. I blink at the massive, Tibetan-style Yunnan Holy Palace, a five-star hotel in a town of 15,000 souls. Women appear in jao gui, traditional Tibetan aprons. Monks in maroon robes saunter by. The road to Lhasa is a yellow band on a brown paper plain.

What is now the Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture of Diqing used to be a province in the Tibetan Empire that routinely thrashed both Mongols and Chinese on the battlefield. It was the Tibetan version of Australia, a remote land settled by convicts and exiles sent here in the fifth century.

Tea with the lama
Next morning, under a Himalayan sky of blue fire, there's mysticism swirling in the air. We make our way to the Songzanlin Monastery. Constructed in 1690, the sprawling monastery is home to 700 monks. As in Lhasa's Jokhang, the temple is a mélange of shadow, smoke, demons and votive lamps reeking of rancid yak butter. The throng, chanting mantras as it snakes its way clockwise, is so thick a dead man might be swept from shrine to shrine without falling down.

My Tibetan guide Nuojie introduces me to her uncle Zhaba Xijie, one of the monastery's eight high lamas. Sitting in the light of a single tiny window, he mixes boiling tea, yak butter, barley flour and salt into a pot. The tea is sour and salty, and we nibble on hunks of sharp yak-milk cheese. This yanguedze is starting to feel he really has found Shangri-La.

It is another 180 kilometres over precarious mountain roads to the valley of Deqin which, encircled in cone-shaped peaks, could have inspired James Hilton's Blue Moon Valley. But today there is snow on the mountains and the passes leading there are no longer safe.

Nuojie is conspicuously buoyant. Winter is coming and like so many Tibetans, she prefers the cold. The change in weather dashes my hope of photographing the monastery in perfect light.

I recall the old Chinese admonition about "smelling the flowers from horseback," which so nicely sums up the travel writer's life. I curse the itineraries that give me too little time to wonder at too much.

I'm still hungering for that last image as I depart for the airport. But then again, it's wise to leave a remarkable place hungering because -- considering the brevity of our lives and the hugeness of this still-marvellous world -- it's my best hope of returning.


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