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Discovering the True Meaning of Paradise in China’s Yunnan Province

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Photo by Diana Markosian

On a trip through the less-visited corners of Yunnan, China, writer Peggy Orenstein searches for the bliss and grace of the unexpected.

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I was sitting in the one-room hut of a Tibetan nomad, a wizened old man I’d met while hiking through the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve, a protected wilderness in the far northwest of China’s Yunnan province. My lungs, already straining for breath at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, were choked by the smoky fire at the center of the room, and I was trying not to think about the five-mile climb back to the trailhead.

The man gestured toward his two butter churns. He showed me a wood cabinet filled with rounds of yak butter that he made and sold to monasteries, where monks plunge their fingers into ice water before carving the blocks into elaborate lotus blossoms, chrysanthemums, images of Buddha. He offered me a cup of something thick, yellowish-white, and slightly chunky: milk, produced by his yaks, that he’d fermented for several days. I sipped. It was sour and fizzy and, admittedly, a little personally challenging. But it was like nothing I’d ever tasted, in this place that was like nowhere I’d ever been, with this person who was like no one I’d ever met. I drained my cup and thought: Welcome to paradise. 

I would recall that moment often while driving through the “three parallel rivers” region, where the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rush down side by side from their headwaters, all within 55 miles of each other. My 10-day driving trip followed a centuries-old trade route through deep-cut gorges and over Himalayan mountains, from the ancient town of Lijiang to a city that in 2001 was rebranded “Shangri-La” by the Chinese government, which claimed it was the location mythologized in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.

In China’s Yunnan province, the 13 peaks of the Meili Snow Mountain range are sacred to Tibetan Buddhists.

That may be true. Or not, since Hilton never actually set foot in China, though he did apparently consult the writings of Westerners who lived in this region. Still, that bureaucratic sleight of hand seemed apt. Visitors to China invariably bump up against the government’s Big Brother edicts—what you’re allowed to see and what you’re not, what is real and what is for show, what is tolerated and what is obliterated. Of course the country’s utopia, too, would be defined by decree. As I passed by farmlands dotted with Buddhist stupas, through towering forests, and along rivers running red with silt, my hope was to find something less scripted and more true: the bliss and grace of the unexpected.

My journey, taken just months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, was part of the individually customized “Songtsam Circuit” named for (and developed by) a series of small luxury lodges. The inns, where I spent my nights, were established by Baima Duoji, a Tibetan former documentary filmmaker for CCTV who grew up in a farming town near Shangri-La and wanted to introduce visitors to the culture and hospitality of what used to be a rarely traveled region. “Songtsam” means “heaven” in Tibetan—that promise of paradise again. Each lodge is integrated into a remote village, all of them places that would be difficult to discover as a non-Chinese traveler and virtually impossible, without a knowledgeable guide, to experience in any depth. The lodges’ staff, architecture, and cuisine all draw from the surrounding ethnic populations, providing the sense that nearby communities are being supported, not appropriated. 

My hope was to find something less scripted and more true: the bliss and grace of the unexpected.

Duoji wants guests to feel “taken care of as they were when they were children,” reflecting the Buddhist idea that (as a result of reincarnation) any of us could, in some life, have been anyone’s parents, and any place may have, in truth, once been our home. In practice, that meant that, late my first afternoon, blurry from jet lag and culture shock, I was welcomed to my Lijiang digs with handcrafted slippers along with home-baked barley cookies, fruit, and tea. I wandered hallways that were sumptuous with thick carpets, hand-laid timber flooring, panoramic views, and exquisitely curated art, ranging from stone statues of Green Tara, a female bodhisattva of wisdom and compassion, to polished brass and lacquer vessels and mandalas inscribed on silk. For dinner, I was urged, repeatedly, to order more than I could possibly eat—pork ribs fried with tangy local plums; briny, house-cured ham; beef stir-fried with Cordyceps, a fungus grown on insect larva (way more delectable than it first sounded to me); fried chickpea jelly (ditto).

Returning to my room, I found a thermos of hot, creamy milk placed next to my bed, fresh from the cows lowing beneath my window. With all due respect to my mom and dad, my childhood was never like this! Another thing: My guide, a 29-year-old Tibetan woman named Lhatso, addressed me, in all sincerity, as “dear Sister.” I soon began reciprocating, because truly, who knows? 

At a housewarming party in Shangri-La, guests sip yak butter tea and snack on pork buns and other local delicacies.

We initially planned to skip Lijiang’s old town, which in recent years has become overrun by crowds, and instead hike part of Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the great treks of China. But the trails were closed by floods and rockslides, so old town it would be. And it was true: At first I felt like I’d blundered into a Chinese version of “It’s a Small World,” a place where ethnicity was preserved less as lived culture than as a performance for others.

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Yunnan province is home to the largest population of ethnic minorities in China—there are more than 20 groups in the region, each with its own language and distinct cultural traditions. The two largest in northwestern Yunnan are the Naxi, who live mostly around Lijiang, and Tibetans, who live in what is called the “Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture” (but is ultimately controlled by the Chinese). Over the centuries, these groups have faced sometimes brutal pressure to assimilate, as is the case today in places like Xinjiang province, where more than a million Muslim Uighurs have been placed in concentration camps to be “re-educated” in the traditions of China’s majority Han Chinese. In contrast, today’s Naxi are not only allowed but also encouraged to practice their traditions. 

A driver dropped us near the town’s central square, where women in classic Naxi dress coaxed shy tourists to join them in folk dances. Musicians performed on traditional instruments, exchanging photos for tips. Lhatso quickly turned away, leading me down cobbled streets lined with silversmiths, brass workers, and food vendors. I stopped to sample a flower bun (a buttery pastry filled with sugared rose petals), bought some sour-sweet tamarind candy that melted on my tongue, and snacked on pomegranate seeds and roasted durian.

Naxi women in traditional dress stand in a rice field in the Yunnan town of Tacheng.

The crowd thinned by the time we reached the Zhongyi produce market—tourists tend to congregate near the central square, and anyway, it was the off-season. Naxi women sold handmade tofu, honey, and rice noodles (a local specialty). Tables overflowed with pu-erh tea leaves pressed into flat cakes, a process that, in ancient times, made portable fare for trade on the Tea Horse Road. A man sold sewing needles from a wheeled handcart that blared a tinny, ice-cream-truck version of  “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The air was redolent with the funk of mushrooms and medicinal herbs. I could imagine the scene had been much the same—minus the Christmas carols—since the 12th century, when this city established itself as a commercial hub. 

Later that afternoon, we drove to a farming village to have tea with an elderly Naxi woman introduced to me only as “Auntie.” (“I don’t know her real name!” Lhatso said later, when I asked.) Auntie wore a blue apron and a cape with straps crossed in front of her body. We sat around her potbellied stove noshing on popcorn, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts, which were in season and ubiquitous.

Years ago, the Naxi were matriarchal: Children were raised by their mothers’ families; fathers could visit in what were called “walking marriages.” Women were shamans, ran businesses, controlled the family income. With a few exceptions, that is no longer true; Auntie herself is married to a Han Chinese man, her second husband. Still, vestiges of that time remain. Even today, the concept of “big” in the pictographic written language of the Naxis includes the symbol for women, while “small” includes the symbol for men. 

Auntie turned on music and demonstrated the steps of a folk dance, inviting me to join her. But the words of the song, it turned out, were not Naxi. It was a Chinese anthem expressing appreciation for the Communist Party. I asked whether she knew any Naxi songs. She insisted this was a Naxi song—about how the Naxi are thankful for communism. I tried again, asking whether she knew any dances that, perhaps, her grandmother might have known. She gave me a hard look and shot back, “Do you know dances from your grandmother?” 

8 Reasons Yunnan is China's Best Food Destination

Yunnan is one of the most ecologically diverse regions of China, and one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. During my visit, farms brimmed with tobacco, corn, rice, barley, sunflowers, fruit—even the occasional cannabis plant. The next morning, as we headed southwest from Lijiang into the mountains, we passed villagers, many in traditional dress, walking with baskets strapped to their backs, going about their ordinary lives. Women sold crops at roadside stands; men played pool on outdoor tables; a musician sat on a curb playing a gaohu, a bowed stringed instrument.

The slopes surrounding us were striated every shade of green. I glimpsed the simple wood-frame houses characteristic of the area. Shaggy cows eyeballed me, sometimes while blocking the road. More than 1,000 feet above Lijiang, we stopped at Wenfeng monastery, where Lhatso, who’d spent her teenage years studying Buddhism abroad, gave me a crash course in the religion. I tried to listen but was distracted by the riot of color in the soaring main hall.

Every surface was intricately painted in red, blue, green, yellow; statues of deities—some many stories high, some a mere few inches—presided amid butter lamps, paper flowers, offerings of wine, soft drinks, tea, fruit, packaged snacks. “Buddhism is not just decoration,” Lhatso gently reminded me. I knew she was right, but this was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Tibetans say that we go through life unawakened: Well, I was wide awake now. 

Tourists explore Baisha Old Town at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain near Lijiang.

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The region’s highest lama happened to be on site, and since, as it turned out, he and Lhatso had both grown up in Sichuan province, he invited us into his chambers. The lama, whom Lhatso referred to as Rinpoche, or “precious one,” sat on what looked like a padded wooden throne, sipping tea from a thermos decorated with cartoon cats. I knelt at his feet and held out a silk scarf I’d bought outside, called a khata, which he blessed before draping on my neck. He gazed at me a moment, eyes dancing behind gold-rimmed glasses, in seeming amusement. Then he began handing me gifts: an umbrella, a thermos, and a tote bag all emblazoned with the logo of the monastery; a book he had written; a string of prayer beads with a small blue medicine Buddha attached to promote healing. I bobbed my head as I accepted each one, hoping to convey both my unworthiness and my thanks. 

The mountains are full of artisans, families who have for generations made juniper incense for monasteries, shaped black pottery vessels, and forged copper cowbells. We traveled among them, a CD of Tibetan pop songs on repeat as our soundtrack. (I found myself unconsciously humming one, an ode to a mother’s love, whenever I had a quiet moment.) Everywhere, craftspeople offered me fruit and nuts, though I was neither pressured nor expected to buy their wares.

In Tacheng, a village of 40 homes where I spent two nights at the Songtsam Tacheng Lodge after leaving Lijiang, we strolled through rice paddies and along stone walls to the home of a Naxi woman who made tofu, old-school style. She ground soybeans on a heavy, stone press, the white foam cascading into a bucket, then squeezed the liquid through cheesecloth into a wood-fired cauldron. A few minutes later, she added a coagulant then served me the result—delicate and silky topped with soy sauce, chiles, and scallions. A few days later, in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, we visited the home of an artist whose grandfather had gilded wooden bowls at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, including one for the Dalai Lama. The artist’s grandfather passed the trade along to her mother, who had passed it down to her. She would have liked to teach it to her own daughter, but, like much of the new generation raised in these parts, the younger woman had moved to the city. 

This was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Tibetans say that we go through life unawakened: Well, I was wide awake now. 

Few people that I met in these hamlets were under 60, and I almost never saw a child. That made their way of life feel simultaneously more tenuous and more valuable. What’s more, a railroad will soon connect these towns, bringing in more tourists, more industry—and I suppose more money, though I wondered at what cost. Some villages had already been demolished, their residents displaced to make room for environmentally questionable dams that will bring greater hydropower for development. The dharma wheel turns. Change is inevitable, but some is unconscionable; I could only hope that in addition to destruction, I was witnessing survival. 

Rounded hills became craggy and sharp as we ascended into the Meili Snow Mountains. Periodically, the clouds slid away to reveal a silvery peak soaring over 22,000 feet: Kawagebo, among the most sacred mountains in Tibetan Buddhism. Kawagebo has never been summited; an infamous effort, in 1991, ended when all 17 Japanese and Chinese climbers died in an avalanche. The local government has since banned further attempts, but thousands of pilgrims circumnavigate its 149-mile base each year to cleanse their karma. My inn that night was located in a town of just five homes, all of which practiced polyandry. Lhatso took me to one in which three brothers shared a single wife. I can’t say how that was for her, though I was told that at least one of the brothers spent most of his time with his girlfriend and another worked far from home.  

Lijiang’s Old Town at sunrise. The Old Town was built more than 800 years ago, in the late Song Dynasty and early Yuan Dynasty.

The eldest of the husbands made us yak butter tea—a mixture of yak butter, pu-erh, and salt—along with yak cheese dipped in sugar and a bowl of tsampa, the roasted and ground barley that is the staple of the Tibetan diet. Tea with salt. Cheese with sugar. Wives with three husbands. What could I do but accept what was offered? As we ate, I printed a string of colorful prayer flags, pressing them one by one onto an ink-covered wood block carved with the image of a horse and a mantra wishing health and happiness to all beings. Tibetan Buddhists don’t pray for themselves: They send out good wishes to others. Part of me wanted to keep my flags as a souvenir, but I resisted that impulse. Instead, I hung them in the mountains the next morning while trekking in the Baima National Reserve, and let the horse and rider scatter my blessings to the wind.

The rainy season had just ended, and every surface along the trail was carpeted with moss. The last of the season’s mushrooms hid in the shadows, and I spotted a few foragers who hoped to bring their final harvest to market. After a drop of 1,600 feet, the trail opened onto an alpine pasture where yak and cattle grazed, the sound of their cowbells low and pure. I sat among them eating my lunch (which, I noted guiltily, included yak jerky), recording a sample on my phone. But I knew that even if I got the sound right, I could never capture this feeling. Perhaps, in the end, paradise is just that: the brief moment when full awareness meets absolute gratitude. Certainly that happens in travel, and here in this land, I would find it in the unexpected, the serendipitous: the twinkle of a lama’s eye, a pasture full of yaks, a cup of milk in a smoky room. 

How to visit Yunnan, China

Book directly through Songtsam. The Beijing-based outfitter WildChina also specializes in tailor-made itineraries throughout China that can include the Songtsam lodges in Yunnan province where the writer traveled. Trips take into account enhanced safety precautions and sanitation protocols—see details on WildChina’s website.) Seven-day trips from $2,700 (wildchina.com). You can also find a travel advisor to help plan your trip at afar.com/tac. 

>>Next: This Woman-Led Travel Company Wants You to See Another Side of China

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