“Mountains are Nature’s Editors”
Yunnan’s Royal Grassland and Home for a Decade
That term and fictitious place, 'Shangrila', transcribed from Tibetan writings, liberally taken from 'Khemba’lung' which referred to a kind of earthly retreat and paradise hidden from the greater world. James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon also hinted at such a distinctly Himalayan mountain abode called Shangrila. ‘Shangrila’ it is, sort of. That space would be a home to me for a decade of living and like many 'decisions', it wasn't an entirely planned one.
My reality upon arriving in the early 2000’s to this place in northwestern Yunnan Province, presented enough of those wafts of mountain air and enough of that ‘away-ness’ to stimulate an awareness that this place could be some sort of earthly home and paradise. I had travelled from Taipei’s efficient rush hours and heat, and whatever northern blood I had immediately took to the sharp tangs of snow in the autumn air and that unmistakable visceral feel that mountain people - the world over - seem to possess. Things, people, feelings and perceptions were all immediately 'there' and present and in some small but vital ways, the place just felt as though it had been waiting for me. It felt familiar.
Shangrila is a place of many names. Locals will say that it was acquired in the late 90’s - early 2000’s, after a local magistrate made repeated journeys to the Provincial and National leaders in China to plead for the new moniker, 'Shangri'la'. The ‘old’ name, which wasn’t really old at all, Zhongdian, wasn’t quite captivating enough.
Shangrila though, started out as a part of the Tibetan kingdom, known as Gyal’thang or the Royal Grassland. It remains a true description. A large valley that sits at 3200 metres surrounded by hills, mountains, and in the not so distant spaces, peaks of stone and snow. It remains a place that cannot quite shake its rural roots. Pine forests - and on clear days at least - tease and carry the distinctive feeling of a place that once led to more imposing and grand 'other' places, higher up. It was at the time a perfect confluence of mountains, trade and pilgrimage paths, and cultures. It was also, remarkably economical. Without a lot of resources it proved a teasingly attractive choice for me. My homes over the next decade of living within the 'old town' of 'Duke'zhong' annually averaged the same as monthly rent in a city. I could wander and use the space as a launching pad for the dozens expeditions I would make, and most vitally it would become a hub from which to peak into and obsess upon that great trade route so rarely acknowledged, the 'Tea Horse Road'. A great highway that linked DNA, linguistics, trade, and all that had value from southwest China onto the Tibetan Plateau and beyond into the subcontinent of India, and by extension even stretching further on west to the old empires of Persia.
It is a city split by lines, this modern Shangrila. There was old town and new town literally cut by a single road. The seasons too split very distinctly the place. During the winter season half of the inhabitants disappear back to their homes in warmer climes further down in altitude, while the locals contentedly button down for a calmer period of delicious mountain cold. This place too is/was a crucible and collection point for those wishing to travel along that route that obsessed me, the Tea Horse Road.
It became a home to me when I shook hands on a deal to move into an old Tibetan home without heat or water and inundated with mice and winds that sliced through the gaping holes. I had 50 kg’s of belongings which included tea, mountain kit, and little else. It was away, and I needed some of this away-ness. No debts, single, and building up a rapid distaste for city life, my mind and blood were primed for this away-adventure. It was, in so very many ways, a place to practice a bit of autonomy and minimalism. It was also a staging point for caravans along the old trade routes heading south to Lijiang or north, west, and 'up' to Lhasa. Yes, I wanted to be away, in a quiet space but I also wanted to immerse myself into this grand route of tea, horses, sky, wind and cultures.
To travel and learn about the Tea Horse Road (which had by now become a founding pillar of my day to day life and breath) I wanted to live alongside it while I researched. To-ing and fro-ing wasn’t enough. I wanted to be stuck in to its spaces and its memories, its aches, and its people...and I wanted the mountains close. An old quote played beautifully here with my intention: "It is only when you start finding aspects that you dislike just a little, that it truly becomes a home. And you must immerse deep into a place to dislike a place just a little".
Yunnan’s ‘feel’ is a very different thing to much of the rest of China and much of this stems from its dense range of ethnicities, mountains and (for me at least) its proximity to tea. Lots of tea. Fringe areas of the Middle Kingdom have never really lost their feel of energetic history, and Yunnan still keeps a speed that is somehow tamer to the cities which race forwards. To the south in the dark sweltering corners, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar lie. Some of the oldest cultivated tea trees on the planet lie too amidst the forests and subtropical heat. Tea, the eternal fuel and all-seeing stimulant that fed every point of the compass; tea the panacea and commodity; tea the great currency that would be strapped aboard the backs of mule, yak, horse, man and sheep on scarcely believable overland journeys to the Himalayas - all of that lie close too.
Time in Shangrila became time on the move wandering pathways in the hills, getting calls from friends and locals asking me to come to such-and-such a place to meet an elder who had travelled the Tea Horse Road. For as much time as was spent trekking along legitimate portions of the trade route, there were seemingly equal amounts of time entirely lost.
My home was a loft space of reused wooden planks, a bed, a stove and a writing table. A tea table with heaps of leaves acted as the mecca and heartbeat of sorts. 'Decorations' included climbing kit, extra clothes, and a collection of Tibetan wooden tea bowls. Electricity was sketchy at best and temperatures navigated themselves down below the freezing mark at night...but there was that narcotic (and at times masochistic) feeling of living simply, close to Mother Nature’s moods and close to that which holds the soul. That lat bit was the Tea Horse Road.
Community, as it so often does, became that little extra glue. Missionaries with their seemingly inexhaustible supply of funding ran businesses, kept to themselves (while simultaneously tight to locals) and travellers sifted in from across China’s expanse eager for a touch of the fabled Shangrila and perhaps a peek into something within themselves. Tibetan guides became a warm nest of conversations, gossip and knowledge of the upper mountain worlds. Their tales became comfortable worlds that I hunkered into. Travellers too from other continents came and went and part of my life became even more seasonal. There was the time of quiet and cold and wood stoves chugging, and there was the time of rain, tourists, and bustle.
The original people of Shangrila who settled the region, the ‘Gyal’than’ba’s’ were thought to have emigrated from the remote and blistering colds of northern Tibet and the Changtang region centuries ago. Their dialect remains distinct from the Khampa dialects that surround and make up the eastern part of the ancient Tibetan kingdoms.
It was here too, in this adopted home, that I would adopt the Tibetan phrase, "kalè kalè" (slowly slowly). It would be (and remain so) a space, a teacher, and a time in which to live - and be enveloped in - a world of tea and mountains.