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August 22, 2011

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Finding lost horizons

BREATHTAKING landscapes and scenes of hushed tranquillity still abound in Yunnan Province, but Xu Wei finds out that commerce makes inroads in this land of Shangri-La.

Green and scenic Yunnan Province seems a world away from the scorching summer heat in Shanghai. The exotic province on the Myanmar border is among the few places in China where the vegetation is always green and it's like spring all year round.

Yunnan is a favorite with hikers, climbers and those who appreciate colorful ethnic cultures.

Though the capital Kunming and other cities are developing rapidly, there is still great beauty and tranquillity to be found. Many people from cities around China have fled urban areas, moved to Yunnan and opened cafes, bars, galleries and various small businesses.

There are many scenic spots and resorts but for a short visit of around 10 days, tourists should not miss the ancient cities of Dali, Lijiang and picturesque Shangri-La.

No one knows for sure the location of Shangri-La in James Hilton's famous 1993 novel "Lost Horizon," but in modern China, Zhongdian County was renamed Xianggelila (Shangri-La in Chinese) in 2001, to attract tourists.

One of many beautiful areas is the northwestern Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, which averages 2,000 meters above sea level and where peaks reach as high as 3,700 meters.

Shanghai travelers are especially charmed since the city of 20 million people has only one hill, Sheshan, which stands at just 97 meters above sea level, and its rural suburbs though charming are hardly breathtaking.

On my drive from Yunnan's capital city Kunming to Dali, I was enchanted by the cloudless sapphire skies, luxuriant vegetation and traditional buildings of different ethnic groups.

The province is home to around 25 ethnic minorities, including the well-known Bai, Naxi, Dai and Tibetan people, come living in small communities and autonomous prefectures.

The city of Dali is home to many Dai people known for their rich culture, including famously artistic architecture, music and song.

The Bai people regard white as a noble color and many brick and plaster walls are painted white, with auspicious Chinese characters painted on them.

Some imposing houses bear the names and positions of the resident family. The wooden roofs, upturned eaves, arches, corridors and other architectural features are heavily ornamented and often bear wooden and stone carvings of flying dragons, phoenix, bats, rabbits and other animals representing peace and prosperity.

Residents warmly welcome visitors with legendary san dao cha or "three-course tea," which in flavor reflects their life's philosophy: the first tea is bitter, the second sweet and the third has a pleasing aftertaste. It's compared by some to the phases of life.

The Bai people celebrate the colorful Raosanlin Festival, a kind of Valentine's Day for married couples. According to the tour guide, ancient Bai people always obeyed their parents in matters of marriage and never eloped or died for a lost love. But from around April 23-25 on the lunar calendar, they are allowed to wear their most beautiful costumes and date with their true love. They have bonfire parties in which they sing and dance to bandore (stringed bass instrument) music .

The city of Dali, which dates back more than 600 years, is famous for four special scenes: the flowers in Shangguan, the wind in Xiaguan, the snow on the peak of Mt Cang and the moon reflected in Lake Erhai. Most are unspoiled and the tourist facilities do not damage the environment.

Every year more than 40,000 foreign tourists visit Dali and there is a foreigners' street in the heart of its ancient town that faces Lake Erhai to the east and Mt Cang to the west. The street is lined with cafes, Western-style restaurants, galleries, and shops selling clothing, silver, handicrafts, hiking equipment and other goods.

It takes about four hours to drive from Dali to scenic Lijiang, home of the Naxi ethnic group. An earthquake in 1996 damaged the beautiful city and brought it considerable media exposure that later increased the influx of tourists.

Nowadays, Lijiang has become one of the most popular holiday destination in China. Some people move there in seek of a leisurely life, others seek business opportunities. More than 3,000 stores sell typical colorful shawls, jewelry and souvenirs in Lijiang's ancient town.

Many souvenirs are not authentic and locally produced but are imported from Yiwu, a large manufacturing and distributing center of small commodities in Zhejiang Province. Dining can be expensive in the ancient city, where monthly rent can cost tens of thousands of yuan.

Tourism has turned out to be a double-edged sword for the city. On one hand, it has propelled economic development; on the other hand, much of its peaceful lifestyle and cultural heritage are vanishing in a wave of commerce.

Now, walking on the streets of Lijiang is not unlike walking around big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing - that's not much of a respite from Shanghai.

But the nearby Lashihai Wetland Park is still unspoiled. It shelters more than 57 kinds of migratory birds which pass the long winter in the warm Yunnan climate. Some birds are endangered and protected, such as the black stork, the black-necked crane and hooded crane. Bird-watching season is from December through February.

The wetland is a good place for horseback riding around the lake and enjoying scenery, farmland and Naxi villages that have not been polluted by tourism.

A favorite horseback-riding route follows the Cha Ma Gu Dao or Ancient Tea Route, also called the Southern Silk Road and the Tea and Horse Road. It was an important trade link from tea-producing areas of Yunnan to India via Burma (today's Myanmar) and to Tibet and central China via Sichuan Province. Around 1,000 years ago, people exchanged tea and silver for livestock.

Taking a boat ride in the wetlands and its lake, one can relax and enjoy the poetic landscapes, willow trees on the banks and the reflection of snow-capped Yulong Snow Mountain in the emerald-green rippling water. A boat man uses his pole to make the boat glide through waterways where birds, fish and lush vegetation abound.

The food in Lijiang is delicious and healthy, including truffles and fresh water salmon hot pot. People also cook spirulina, a nutrient-dense blue-green algae that is extremely high in protein and micro-nutrients. It also helps protect from UV radiation at high elevations, as in Yunnan. It is widely exported as a nutritional supplement.

Many people compare Shangri-La, a Tibetan town in northwest Yunnan Province, to an ideal of tranquillity, a way of living at peace with oneself, one's fellows and nature. I was amazed by the spectacular and serene landscapes in this hidden paradise.

The Potatso National Park is awe-inspiring. Eco-friendly shuttle buses take tourists to the major attractions, pristine Shudu and Bita lakes at an elevation of 4,000 meters. Wooden walkways are built around the lakes and boat rides are available.

The park contains grassy highlands where yaks and horses graze in the shadow of great show-covered mountains. Tibetan villages are also attractions, but have not changed greatly because of commerce, according to guides.

In Shangri-La, visitors can buy saffron and caterpillar fungus (cordyceps or aweto) which grows on the plateaus.

The herbs are famous for boosting the immune system. They are famously expensive, and prices in Shangri-La are around 300 yuan per gram in average.

How to get there

? The direct flight from Shanghai to Kunming takes around two and a half hours. There are bus, train and air connections between Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La.

? There are also direct flights from Shanghai to Lijiang and Shangri-La. But to fly to Dali, travelers must transfer at Kunming Wujiabao International Airport.

Travel tips:

? Take strong sunscreen, lip balm, sun glasses and hat because of the intense sun and UV radiation.

? The temperature fluctuates dramatically from day to night. Carry a flexible combination of clothes and layers to keep comfortable. Recovery from colds and respiratory infections can be slow in the thin air of the plateau.

? Due to the lack of oxygen, do not exercise vigorously. Take plenty of water, disposable oxygen bottles and appropriate medicine (some to be taken in advance) for altitude sickness. But in case of serious discomfort, the best advice is to move to a lower elevation.

? Beware fake silver, jade and jadeite, herbs and truffles and do not buy from unauthorized vendors and stores. Remember that many trinkets are made in Yiwu, Zhejiang Province.


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