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Two hours by bus north of Lijiang, the Chang Jiang (Yangzi River) cuts between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Mountains to form the 3900m deep Tiger Leaping Gorge. This section of the river is called Jin Sha, Golden Sands, but from here I could put a message in a bottle and throw it into the river for someone in Shanghai on China's east coast.
On the bus I meet Parisienne Nadine and we agree to be lazy tourists and walk only part of the 16 km Gorge. At the gate we negotiate for half price tickets since we're only going halfway. Laughingly, the gateman sells us one ticket and lets us pass. I am awed by the sheer cliffs but better mountains lie ahead.
Zhongdian lies 2 hrs northwest and 3200m above sea level. As if we had crossed a border, the scenery suddenly changes to boulder-strewn hills, like moraine left behind by recently melted glaciers and wide-open grasslands with large hay drying racks. In the hills along the road are trees of white flowers that look like clumps of snow, beautiful against the mountain scrub. "They are perhaps white azalea," says Nadine.
"Oh, it looks like a Hollywood film set," laughs Nadine of the front of the Tibet Hotel, elaborately decorated in Tibetan style: gold with blue, green and pink flowers and geometric patterns. Zhongdian is in north Yunnan but long ago it was part of greater Tibet, in the province of Chamdo. The people here are actually Tibetan and the rugged terrain is more like that of Tibet than of China. Our rooms are drab but the beds are fitted with electric blankets. Even in summer Zhongdian is cold - it remains between 15 - 20o Celsius with constant rain for our two days there.
Deqin is to the very north of Yunnan on the borders of Tibet to the west, Sichuan to the east and Myanmar to the southwest. At an altitude of 3550m, Deqin sits among the clouds.
In 1997, China Daily reported that based upon the many geographic similarities between James Hilton's city of Shangri-La (featured in his book "Lost Horizon") and the town of Deqin, they concluded that they were one and the same. To date, no one, including the Hilton estate, has refuted this claim.
Deqin is a dead end as far as foreigners go. The border with Tibet is closed to foreigners and there is really no other reason for coming to Deqin apart from its Shangri-La mystique. (In the following months, Deqin received a facelift and Zhongdian received an airport which suggested that the border would be opened to foreigners wishing to travel to Lhasa and bringing tourism to Deqin. However, two years later, though there were weekly flights between Lhasa and Zhongdian, I was still not allowed to travel by road from Lhasa to Deqin. The Deqin inhabitants are, unfortunately, still awaiting their road paved with gold).
In the end, I decide to walk to Fei Lai Temple. Along the way several buses and the blue trucks used as public transport pass me. By now I am enamored of the mountains and the clouds floating across the valleys and continue to walk. I had asked many Yunnan people what "Yunnan" meant but no one could answer me. Only the people here could know that "Yunnan" means "The Southern Land of Clouds". The usual translation is taken to be, "South of the Clouds" but here it is obvious to me that this is the land of clouds. The road can be seen for miles winding around the mountains, a brown snake among brown rocks.
It is extraordinarily peaceful and, there on the road back to Deqin, I feel an enormous contentment. And for me, this is the intangible goldmine, the real Shangri-La, not just somewhere out there in the valley but inside too, vibrating in harmony. There is an old Hindu fable of a fish that enquired of another fish: "I am looking for water. Where can I find it?" And I, who began life in El Dorado, the City of Gold, Trinidad, have come halfway around the world to find it here among a people lost in the city of Shangri-La, looking for water.
On the roadside I notice some green stones among the grass. There are three triangular shaped ones in a row that immediately remind me of Trinidad's Trinity Hills. I pick one up and turn it over. Fragments of gold embedded in the stone glint in the sunlight.
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Northern Route | North-west China : The Silk Road | China : The Centre of the World
Journey to Shangri La: Yunnan | Journey to Shangri La: Dali | Journey to Shangri La: Lijiang
Journey to Shangri La: Zhongdian & Deqin | The Year of the Dragon