China: The road to Shangri-La

HAVE you noticed you never quite get to Shangri-La? I arrived in the pretty town of Lijiang at night and, although it is a Unesco World Heritage site, I was totally unprepared for its charms.

Red lanterns lit up narrow cobbled streets lined with traditional Chinese wooden buildings and small stone bridges spanned an intricate canal system. Off the main square, a row of picturesque drinking dens were brimming with young Chinese revellers.

I was supposed to leave for Shangri-La the next day but could it could really be much better than this?

The question was soon academic: snow came and the road into the mountains was too perilous to drive. Shangri-La would have to remain a dream.

So it was time for some retail therapy.

Sitting on the Yangzi River in north-east China, near the Tibetan Plateau, Lijiang has a population of more than 1million, split between a bustling modern city and the scenic Old Town. It is a jumping-off point for expeditions towards the Himalayas so my first purchases were warm clothing: a down jacket and thermal pants. Here a North Face GoreTex jacket cost a third of the price of the identical one I was wearing. Both were made in China.

Arts and crafts were next: hand-embroidered tablecloths, jade and bronzeware, then the famed Yunnan tea and serving sets that come with them.

Lijiang is home to the Naxi people and a cultural show of their music and dance was an evening highlight. During the day, their haunting flute music echoed through the streets.

Chief among the town’s other attractions is Yuquan Park (Black Dragon Pool Park). Its picture-postcard lake was thronged with photographers.

The oddest thing was being in a bustling tourist spot, but being gawped at as a foreigner. All the trappings of the tourist industry are in evidence here – hostels, bars, postcard shops – but the overwhelming majority of visitors are Chinese.

The wealth of tourists and influences are reflected in the many restaurants, 80 at last count, that serve every style of cuisine from Yunnan to Sichuan, Beijing to Huaiyang and Korean to Japanese. After a heavy lunch or dinner, another local speciality proved addictive: a luxurious foot massage.

Every evening, I retired to my room at the Jiannanchun Hotel, a richly glowing wooden wonder of Chinese architecture that could easily serve as a film set for an ancient martial arts epic. Amazingly, for such a luxurious venue, the reception staff spoke no English but that didn’t make their welcome any less warm after a cold night out in the snow.

Outside Lijiang is a well-worn tourist trail that winds its way past some spectacular natural wonders. Some 15km away, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xueshan) is a glacier lying below the peak of the Shanzidou mountain.

Legend has it that a tiger once jumped the thunderous Jinsha River at Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiaoxia), where the river drops 3,000m over 15km and narrows to 30m. Lugu Lake is a wonderland of fresh air, clear water and scenic views.

And the famous Yangtze River draws hordes of sight-seers angling for a glimpse of its early incarnation in the mountains of Yunnan.

All in all, in the search for Shangri-La, Lijiang is certainly a memorable and captivating place to come across.

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