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.