Road to Shangri-la

The Open Road

Fall 2003 – Feilai Temple, Deqin County, Yunnan Province

Photos and story by Lee Hohen
Translated by Katia Wu / Banshee Fu for StartBackpacking.com

Brisk autumn morning, I stood in front of Feilai Temple, and before me, stretched out in the horizon, was the sacred mountain of Shangri-la, Meili Snow Mountain. With the target in sight, I could hardly contain my excitement as I hopped on the bus. For most travelers, to arrive at Meili Snow Mountain meant the end of their trip; but for me, it was only to be the beginning. This bus ride would take me to a foothill village, up 2600 meters on the slope of Meili Snow Mountain, and from there, I would trek over the Nazongla Mountain Pass at 3900 meters. Beyond that, several more days of trekking awaited me.

When I had first left Shanghai, I didn’t know what to expect from this trip. Before the vacation kicked in, I only concentrated on finishing up my work; hardly even had enough time to make adequate preparations for the trip. But as soon as the clock started to countdown my vacation days, I rushed out of the lights and the noise of the city.

Schedule? Sorry, not for me. Traveling is a way of living. Would you live your life by a time table and a checklist?

 Feilai Temple, Deqin County, Yunnan Province

I had 16 days, a backpack, that was enough.

My overland journey started in Kunming. On the bus ride to Zhongdian in the highlands, truckloads of Tibetans passed us by. Now and then I would see devout families of pilgrims faithfully prostrating themselves in prayers towards the sacred mountain of Meili, elders and children alike. Watching them, suddenly I had a direction.

After hitching a ride with Haba, a Mosuo boy, we drove edged along the cliffs of Jinsha (Golden Sand) River and Lancang (Mekong) River, all the while keeping in sight that legendary snow mountain of Shangri-la, that imposing giant towering over the border of Yunnan and Tibet.

Then, I was on my way to the foothill village.

Outside, brilliant sunshine, fresh air, and the sky so strikingly blue I was tempted to jump straight into it. Inside, the bus was full of Tibetans from Yunnan, Sichuan, even from as far as Qinghai, and there were also several backpackers. A busload of strangers, yet not a sense of strangeness among us; conversations and laughter could be heard all around me. Every now and then, with strangers quickly joined in, folk songs boomed from the bus.

I had been chatting with Andong, a guy from Chengdu, when a girl’s voice sounded behind me: “Excuse me, are you guys also going for Kora?”

Turning around, a pair of beautiful limpid brown eyes had me lassoed in an instant, and a second later, I saw myself already drowning in them.

Belief

An ad hoc backpackers’ group quickly formed with members from all corners of the country: Andong from Chengdu, Lala from Beijing, Inn-keeper Petersue from Lijiang, two guys from Kunming, and Elfin, the girl with the limpid eyes, and her friend Fen from Guangdong, then there was me.

After lunch, we started for the Nazongla Mountain Pass.

At first, everything seemed easy; each of us with a backpack, chatting easily as we hiked. Along the way, we passed several Tibetan horse caravans, donkeys, and also an elderly couple; they were both well-over 70 years old.

The image of the elderly lady struck us the most. Completely white-haired, and with a bag as least 25kg strapped on her back; she was carrying all the family belongings. Her husband had bad knees, so she carried the bag alone. Completely hunchbacked in front of a path sloped at least 45 degrees, she heaved heavily after every few steps as she arduously proceeded forward.

Finally I reached out my hand to the lady, and signaled my desire to help. She looked at me, smiled, but firmly shook her head. In her broken Chinese she told me that everyone must walk her own Kora, her own pilgrimage. “To show true piety, I must also carry my own weight.” She said.

Watching the elderly couple supporting each other as they walked away, I was mesmerized. I started to think about those prostrating pilgrims, under the nature’s mercy, as they made their way through what seemingly endless journeys. I remembered the stories of those who died on their Kora. It was the power of belief which had led them through those formidable odysseys. Those who went in search of their beliefs often used their entire lifetimes to pursue the paradise of their hearts. Even if the journey meant a certain death, it was still happiness achieved.

Those who quested after their beliefs were the most enchanting creatures, full of life and spunk.

The Road

In search of belief was never easy, and neither was trekking along a sludgy mountain road just after rain. Horses had already trampled the road into a muddy pulp, and the further we walked, the higher the altitude. Slowly, chatters and laughter disappeared altogether. Except for footsteps, only heavy breathing sound could be heard.

The path had started to take on a nearly 60 degree incline as it winded upwards. Walking upfront, and making each stride as if mechanically programmed, I tried hard not to look up. To see the endless road up ahead would induce despair almost strong enough to make me give up. At that moment, I wished I could throw away absolutely everything I had on me, even the wrist watch. Several times I faltered and wanted to forget the whole thing, and just close my eyes, and let myself roll down that mountain. But every time I looked back, I saw Elfin, not far behind me.

I was amazed at her strength. How could such a wisp of a girl embody so much endurance? Carrying a bag almost as big as her, and with each small step, she slowly yet steadfastly continued forward. Her eyes no longer just limpid, but shone with unwavering tenacity: a determination which would make anyone believe that even in the darkness, she would not lose her direction. Looking into her eyes, I felt a surge of energy ran through me. I clenched my teeth, turned back around, and renewed my climb.

An eon later, trees with prayer flags started to move into our focus and the road slowly flattened out before us. We were close to Nazongla Pass. Suddenly cheering sounded up front, I rushed forward. Coming to an abrupt halt, I stared at the sight before me, completely speechless.

God is fair: something taken, something to give, and the sight before us was the best reward for the grueling climb we just did.

In front of us, clouds and mist played hide and seek with the snow-capped mountain peak, and cascading down the mountain side were rushing torrents of glaciers plunging from the highest summit. Parting the thickets of the lush forest, and sparkling under the sunrays, this beautiful picture leaped in front of us without warning.

Spell-bounded, suddenly I felt lightness in my heart: this was worth all the toils and troubles we had endured. Even if it were 10 times harder, I would still do it all over again.

Elfin came up and stood beside me. Her eyes were sparkling with excitement as she took in the scenery.

“Thank you, Holden” she said to me.

“For what?”

“On the way up, every time when I wanted to give up, I looked up at you and said to myself ‘I have to catch up with Holden, and as long as he doesn’t stop, I won’t stop.’ You gave me the strength…so, thank you.”

Yubeng

After five hours of hard trekking, we conquered the Nazongla Pass. On our way down the other side, we came upon another one of nature’s grandeur. In the valley below, specks of farm animals dotted the verdant prairie, and tillage appeared as purest jade pieces as they laid there in nature’s harmony. Above, several cloud wisps playfully tangled with curls of chimney smoke, wafting and lingering just above the village.

We walked straight into a painting that was the village of Yubeng.

By 8pm, we had settled into a traditional Tibetan home of the villager Aqing. Paired with Tibetan barley liquor, our dinner consisted of rice and bok choy. It was a simple meal, yet a delicacy to us none the less.

On my way to bed, I noticed Elfin in the main hall talking with Aji, a young worker for the host’s family. Walking over, I realized that she was teaching Aji to read. Patience was one of my strongest virtues, strong enough I had always thought I would make a good teacher. But after watching Elfin, I realized my patience was nothing compared to hers. Holding Aji’s hand to demonstrate writing concepts, she was undeterred by neither repetition nor tedium. It reminded me of the way she hiked up the mountain and the determined look in her eyes.

“Aji is 14 years old, and he has only finished third-grade. He’s been working since then, because his family has no money. I want to sponsor him to finish elementary school.” Elfin told me.

Aji shook his head vehemently after he had understood her request: “Thank you very much, but I can’t take your money. I’m a man, I can earn my own.” He thumped his thin chest proudly as he spoke. Soon, we were all laughing with him.

Shortly after, I also became Aji’s temporary teacher, and the three of us stayed up until well past midnight.

That night, the eight of us fell into a deep, undisturbed slumber, completely obliviously to the antics of ticks and the rats sharing our room.

Sacred Waterfall

Next morning, we continued towards the Sacred Waterfall. Going upstream, and passing through the forest, we savored the dewy morning air, and enjoyed the company of the animals as they scurried through their daybreak activities. Now and then, from the gaps high in the tree tops, we caught glimpses of the snowy mountain peak.

Yesterday’s hike had consumed too much of our strengths; the three girls and the oldest member of our team, Petersue, began to lag behind. Fen and Lala started to experience the highland altitude sickness. While the stronger one raced ahead, I decided to stay with the slower group, just in case they needed me.

We stopped by a roadside kitchen at noon. A combination of keeper’s haphazard Chinese and Petersue’s rudimentary Tibetan told us there were fork roads up ahead. Knowing that the faster group had no knowledge this, and therefore could easily get lost, I decided to go after them. I left my backpack with Petersue, and ran up the road.

After a straight climb on a cliff rock, and running madly for half an hour, I finally caught up with the faster group at the road junction. The moment after I shared the road information with them, I collapsed onto a boulder, hit by a dizzy spell. Another 10 minutes had gone by before I felt better again. As I was trying to calm myself down, I looked around me for the first time.

When you least expect it, you would find your heart’s desire. It would catch you by surprise when you are most tired out: a promising reward for all your hard work. Yet the essence of the reward can never be appreciated by those who have never labored to obtain it.

In the wide valley around me, I found extraordinary beauty. Sitting in the midst of lush foliage filled with rainbow-colored prayer flags, I could feel the vitality of belief surging through the air. Above me, melted strands of snow scattered down the mountain side like ribbons wafting against the cliff; some didn’t even make it all the way down before disappearing into a mist in the middle of its journey. Water flowing, birds chirping, nature’s music surrounded me. Enthralled, I closed my eyes and listened. A smile of contentment slowly curled my lips.

Suddenly a roaring sound of an instrument drifted in from afar. It reminded me of the steam whistle clangoring just before the ship sets sail; it was a resonant, steady, and a powerful sound. Coming closer and closer, soon the gigantic rumble resonated throughout the entire valley, enfolding everything, including me, into its vibrating embrace. The rumble was peaceful, yet it was coming through with unwavering power, as if it had passed through all the Ages of History to reach my ears, and like as a loving hand, it was trying smooth over the creases in my brows.

“Calm your heart” as if it was saying to me, “calm…”

Heeding the advice, I opened up my heart and allowed for the senses of my spirit to be soothed by that ancient sound. Peace and contentment filled my soul; and my spirit slowly lifted upwards.

Soon, a troupe of Lamas emerged from a fork road; I finally came face to face with that wondrous instrument: huge brass Suonas. The longest Suona was well over 3 meters, and required three Lamas to lift it up. It was almost unthinkable how the Lamas managed to carry these big guys along treacherous mountain roads.

“Tashi Dele” the lead Lama greeted me. His face lit up with cordial smile, and as he looked at me with those limpid eyes, I was touched by his kindness.

“Tashi Dele” I returned the greeting.

“Sacred Waterfall?” He asked.

I nodded.

“Come, God will protect you.” He extended his hand to help me stand up.

I followed these Lamas from Qinghai, a province hundreds of miles north of Yunnan, through seas of colorful prayer flags and together we climbed the huge boulder beneath the overhanging cliff. Here, the holy mountain hung down its side a magical waterfall. According to Tibetan Buddhism, only prayers from the most devout could receive holy mountain’s blessings, and after cleansing your body underneath the Sacred Waterfall, you would then receive the key to your Kora.

As the Lama troupe and the local Tibetans danced and sang in front of the Waterfall, succession groups dived into the cascading water. Suonas’ tempo picked up and became livelier. I was busy pushing the shutter, when a Lama came over and grabbed me. I only had time to drop my camera to the ground, before he plunged both of us into the waterfall, drenching us from head to toe.

Hands together in prayer alongside the Lamas, I walked clockwise three times around, before completing the sacred rite. Cleared my mind of all thoughts, I let the freezing snow water pierce my body. After I emerged from the Waterfall, and felt the chilling autumn air breezed through me, my body started to tremble violently from the penetrating cold.

I had left my backpack with Petersue, and the faster group had left already. I crouched down to the ground, and hugged myself as tightly as possible, but there was nothing more I could do. Just then, I noticed a familiar figure coming towards me. Elfin was just in time.

Elfin ran after me, after she realized that I had left without taking anything. But without any baggage, I was too fast for her, as she still had her backpack. But she made it just when I needed her the most.

She pulled off her technical jacket and wrapped it around me. But it was not nearly enough. My entire body was already icy and frigid, and my lips were turning blue, and even my stomach was cramping violently in protest against the cold. Without a thought, she slipped into the jacket, hugging me tight.

On that boulder in front of the Sacred Waterfall, we stood there embracing in what felt like an eternity. Little by little, warmth trickled back into my body, and then into my heart.

In a fierce embrace in the middle of magical landscape, and in the eyes of the passer-bys, we had become another stroke of brush in that beautiful natural painting.

Shangri-la

Elfin and I stayed together for the rest of the trip, and those days went by like a dream.

The day after our embrace, the two of us climbed the ridge of Miancimu Summit, and paid our homage to the holy lake at 4800 meters. That was the most challenging trek of our trip, but like always, the most gruesome sacrifice was awarded with the most magnificent paradise.

Next, we followed the mountain creek downstream, and then took the more untouched, yet treacherous path from Ninong. On the last day of our trek, we passed through Xidang and met up with the rest of our group back at Feilai Temple. Our group humbly thanked the Meili Snow Mountain before leaving for Zhongdian. Then, with Haba, the Mosuo boy, we horsed around the prairie of Shangri-la as our final goodbye.

By the time the journey finally ended, Elfin was already my girlfriend. The closeness we developed for each other did not waver after we returned to our respective cities.

Many years have passed, but we are still emotional and excited whenever we look back on our trekking days on Meili Mountain. It has been a quest for the heart, and the experience in Shangri-la has touched our souls.

The most enchanting paradise could only be found while on the road. Only those who are willing to make the journey can truly open their hearts to what the world has to offer, and appreciate its magic.

Everyone will find their own paradise, but paradise is far from just merely landscape, it’s about the people you meet, the faith you undertake, and your own spirit, it’s also about finding something purely unexpected.

On the road to Shangri-la, I have found the paradise of my heart.