Mythic China

At the front of the van, a constantly spinning, battery-operated, golden prayer wheel flung good wishes in all directions.

At the back of the van, the sharp odor of car-sickness-induced vomit rose from my children’s clothes and hair.

After twisting for hours on an old, narrow Chinese highway that passed through the center of every traffic-choked small town between Dali (大理) and Lijiang (丽江), we curved up through the final switchbacks and emerged into paradise: Mythic China.

A land where the sky was pure blue, trees were golden in the autumn light and charming dust-colored, rammed-earth houses rose out of high grasslands ringed by jagged mountains. My young son lifted his exhausted, pungent head, opened his eyes and saw his first rainbow.

Was this place real or had altitude sickness fogged our brains and magically erased all traces of tatty, crowded, over-touristed China?

Stopping at a guest house built to blend into the surrounding landscape, we feasted on lamb, enjoyed a local Yunnan-made red wine (really), and bathed our vomit-soaked kids in a giant copper-lined bathtub by candlelight (even heaven has power cuts).

We half expected to wake from this dream the next morning to tourist hordes and accompanying touts. Instead we woke to the lowing of cattle and yaks in the frost-tinged valley. Rising, we made our way through the meadows to the golden-roofed monastery and greeted monks in maroon robes, grazing animals, old Tibetan ladies with pink headscarves and only a light sprinkling of fellow-tourists.

I didn’t believe such a place existed in modern China. It’s name may have been changed from pedestrian “Zhongdian” (中甸) to “Shangri-la” (Xianggelali 香格里拉县) in a cunning move by the local authorities to lure tourists, but despite this slight-of-hand it remains a slice of peaceful heaven.

With thanks to my husband and travel-buddy for most of these photographs.

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23 responses to “Mythic China

    • We stumbled into a lucky, cheap, delicious meal our one night in Kunming: “过桥米线.” Probably my kids favorite meal of the trip. In Dali we ate more rice noodles, a local specialty called Xizhou Ba Ba, and a fish dish that was a speciality of a Hmong family that was really unlike anything I’ve tasted (bits of lake fish, including skin, all broken down to bits and stir fried with red chile and glutinous rice flour). Zhongdian was the real food winner: lots of delicious lamb and Tibetian breads and dumplings.

  1. Yunnan has always been my one of my favorite places in the country. I love the serenity of the country side and all that Tibetan inspired architecture. Lijang Old Town is lovely; I just wish it won’t get ruined by over-development for the sake of tourism. Did you make it to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain or the amazing Tiger Leaping Gorge?

    • We did make it to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Dramatically beautiful and luckily enough, hardly anyone was there (perhaps because golden week was two weeks earlier). I’m already looking forward to returning to Yunnan one day.

  2. WOAH… beautiful! Thank you for sharing your wonderful photos! Looks like the husband planned a great trip and took some amazing shots!! Glad to also hear that he booked the return tickets back to HK with plenty of time to spare! 😉

  3. LOVE THIS OPENING — At the front of the van, a constantly spinning, battery-operated, golden prayer wheel flung good wishes in all directions.

    At the back of the van, the sharp odor of car-sickness-induced vomit rose from my children’s clothes and hair.

    Yunnan is one of the to go places on my list. (And I’ve a pretty short list for where I want to go in China.) Jealous you were there. (But could do without the vomiting.)

      • Thank you! You know, I always look forward to coming back to China, but after about 1 week I want to leave. Today, I wore my green T-shirt from Target that says BOO! in glow-in-the-dark white and everyone was starting at me on the street (I wasn’t walking in the dark). And yet while everyone stares, they still don’t see me and run into me with bikes and scooters. Don’t…get…it….

    • We were on Dragon Air to and from Kunming. Both ways I had beef in a brownish sauce with rice and a bit of book choi. No bread roll. Dessert was fresh fruit.

      Inside Yunnan (from Xianggelali back to Kunming) the flight was too short for food. China Eastern gave us bottles of water and small packages of what I think we’re vitamin C tablets. Seriously.

  4. Looks great! I loved Dali before, but haven’t had a chance to go much further. Also – your blog isn’t showing up in my reader anymore. Need to see if I can fix it so I can keep following along.

  5. Pingback: Return to Shangri La | Expat Lingo·

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