I’m attempting time travel, no other way to put it. I’m trying to drill backwards, into some historic experience of this incredible place. And for a moment, on my very first morning in China – in a lush green valley north of Lijiang, in rustic Yunnan province – I’m pretty sure I’ve succeeded.
The sound of a distant, massive chorus is coming in over the fields. A wide reflecting pool lies at my feet, still as a mirror. A three-tier pagoda rises beyond, trimmed in red and strung with lights. And towering above the scene, its cloudless flanks soaring into the first blush of sunrise, stands Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, holy site of the Naxi people, with its ragged line of peaks. The mountain itself is singing, I think, for a delirious moment: a thousand voices weaving ancient melodies in the frosty air.
If not a leap directly back into history, the moment at least felt timeless – even if over breakfast I learn the more prosaic truth. I ask my server at the hotel where the beautiful voices had come from. What choir was it and what songs had they been singing? She looks at me as if I might be a bit daft. Soldiers on the army base, she patiently explains. Just singing the songs that all soldiers like to sing.
China, China. You may find that you reach out to touch history here, only to have the contemporary come surging back. For all its antiquity, the energy of the country is relentlessly forward-moving: an emerging global power, a growing economy, a phenomenon of mega-developments and instant cities. When I planned this trip, I set out specifically to try going in the other direction, toward the unspoiled, the undeveloped, the wild. What of that ancient China remained?
I flew into the city of Lijiang, “City of Love” as it’s known in Chinese lore, the place to go when needing a respite from modern cares. Here, snow-capped mountains give way to fertile valleys spilling down with the Mekong into the jungles of Xishuangbanna, where tea has been farmed for over 2,000 years and wild monkeys and elephants are still to be found.
What I couldn’t have known that first morning in the frost was how I wouldn’t be alone in my quest. I don’t see a lot of Western tourists here, maybe half a dozen in two weeks in Yunnan. My fellow travellers are, instead, Chinese, part of a burgeoning middle class that is creating a whole new kind of in-country tourism. China is in the grip of a fascination with its own history and traditional ways, and in Yunnan, with its tribal villages and wide Tibetan steppes, where history seems so close, you’ll see these tourists in the thousands doing exactly what I’m trying to do: seek out the past.
In the Old Town of Lijiang, my translator, Alvin, and I wind our way past tea traders and jade and silk shops. We eat lotus root and bamboo shoots on a patio overlooking a stone square where palm painters work long sheets of paper with black-inked hands. A Naxi man holds a golden eagle for people to pose with in souvenir snapshots, and in the flower market throngs of people take pictures of locals in traditional dress. Alvin shakes his head and says, “Ten years ago, none of these people would have been here.”
Does all this curiosity run the risk of stamping out the very thing we all seek? Alvin doesn’t speculate – who knows the future, after all? We’re standing in Black Dragon Pool Park, named for the water dragons believed to supply it. Visitors stream down the paths around us, dipping a knee at the Jade Emperor Temple, brushing a “mah-jong” tree (its bark resembles mah-jong tiles) with their fingers for luck. Yet it is hard not to register, as the crowds angle for photos of the Deyue Pavilion, that we’re jockeying for position on a bridge carved with elephants and lions – a bridge called Xiangshi, meaning something or someone missing.
I leave Lijiang, travelling westward and uphill, toward Tibet. Around Lashi Lake, where snow peaches grow and canola flowers bloom, an old woman passes carrying a bundle of corn husks the size of a car on her back. As the air cools and thins, the forests grow sparse and we approach the place called Shangri-La.
The name means “the moon and the sun in mind.” This is the countryside that contributed to James Hilton’s vision of paradise in Lost Horizon. As with all that is storied in China, it comes bundled with the energy of a country in constant forward motion. The town is booming. The market streets offer black silkie chickens and yak cheese, frogs and dried red chilies, but also generators, work boots, washing machines. People move here for the premium salaries. Under the hard blue sky and white sunshine, Shangri-La is a frontier where people live the “yak life” or “without desire life,” as my guide Sonam wryly puts it, all the while tooling up for an onrushing future.
Sonam takes me to the Songzanlin Monastery, a lamasery at the foot of a mountain north of Shangri-La. Built in the 17th century – half destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, rebuilt again in the 1980s – it straddles the line of modern and ancient. We climb the long steps toward the main temples, past the thangka paintings and wheels of life, the four guardian kings, the six immortals, the eight auspicious signs. A thousand flags flutter above a square teeming with red-robed monks, each one wearing brand-name running shoes.