Follow the Living Buddha12 min read

Seeking enlightenment and energy drinks in Shangri-la – Alec Ash

Listen to Kaiser Kuo read an audio version of this story:

The plane juddered in a stomach-turning lurch as it banked steeply to the left, clearing a hilly ridge to reveal Shangri-la. It was a moment we have all had: a sudden jolt of turbulence, or drop in altitude, that reminds us we are in a metal box miles above the hard ground – before a safe landing makes us feel like milksops for ever doubting. Yet here the irony was too delicious. The town of Shangri-la in southwest China, after all, was named for a fictional lamasery stumbled upon after a plane-crash landed a group of Europeans in a Tibetan mountain valley. Now it has become a Chinese tourist town in the East Himalayan foothills, served by half a dozen flights a day. A crash landing would be grimly poetic.

This township in northwest Yunnan wasn’t called Shangri-la (Xianggelila 香格里拉in the Chinese phonetic rendering) at all until 2001, when the nondescript Tibetan county of Zhongdian won a bid to retitle itself after the fictional paradise. Investment and tourist renminbi followed the same illusion, and soon the place was unrecognisable. Five-star hotels sprung up, where once there were wooden country homes. Yak hotpot restaurants, Buddhist trinket shops and ‘ethnic’ dancing performances entertained guests looking for Tibetan flavor. The nearby Songzanlin monastery was refurbished, alloted a field-size carpark and fitted with electronic turnstiles. Paradise, indeed – for the local economy. I didn’t find enlightenment, but my wallet was certainly enlightened.

I had traveled here once before, in 2009 during my first two years living in China, sucked in by the titular myth. It was here too that I first read Lost Horizon, the 1933 British novel by James Hilton (a bestseller that claims to be the world’s first paperback) that kickstarted the legend. The book tells the story of buttoned-up English diplomat Hugh Conway and his motley group of companions, who survive when their plane is hijacked and crashed on a snowy peak, only to discover the luscious ‘Blue Moon Valley’ hidden from the world, where ageing is arrested and the inhabitants pursue their passions in an idyllic community. Ever since its publication, questers have tried to find where the novel’s real geographical inspiration might be.

“Your Englishman wrote a novel,” the Party cadre told me, “and now the city is rich”

The Chinese Shangri-la’s claim to the title revolves around Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American botanist and (aptly named) geologist who wrote a series of popular dispatches in National Geographic during the 1920s and early 30s. James Hilton reportedly read them with relish, gaining inspiration for his novel. In his articles, Rock describes the flora, fauna and ethnic culture of this region of Zomia, where he was based at “Jade lake village” (Yuhucun 玉湖村) on the outskirts of Lijiang, the next town down from Shangri-la on the way to Dali. (Lijiang had also bid to rename itself Shangri-la in 2001, as did the Tibetan town of Daocheng across the provincial border in southern Sichuan. Pakistan also has a claimant in the Skardu valley.)

Now it was 2018, on the eve of the Chinese new year, and I had returned to see how Shangri-la had changed. The township had recently grown to ‘city’ status, and this year was celebrating the 60th anniversary of the region’s official nomenclature as an “autonomous ethnic zone” for local Tibetans. A congratulatory red banner was hung, in the Communist style, above a giant replica stupa that greeted visitors at the southern end of town (rebuilt in place of the original stupa, but twice as high and shinier). The houses and shops of Dukezong, Shangri-la’s central district, had also been rebuilt after a raging fire had eaten them in 2014. Now the ‘old’ town was brand new, and the signs hung above restaurants, shops and inns were printed in a standardized colour scheme of brown and gold.

A local Party Secretary explained to me that Shangri-la’s luxury economy had slowed in the wake of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, when lavish dinners were no longer kosher among cadres. But the infrastructure was already in place: glistening hotels built to mimic gold-roofed Tibetan temples; a towering Mandala Cultural Centre filled with Buddhist tchotchkes; a museum that commu-splained the history of Shangri-la as a “treasure of the Party”; and another museum opposite it recording the town’s importance as a pit-spot during Mao Zedong’s historic Long March. The local cadre, over a modest dinner at his friend’s inn, boasted of the opulence around us. “Your Englishman wrote a novel,” he told me, “and now the city is rich.”

Seeking escape from this roccocco ersatzdom, I texted a local monk, Sonam, whom a friend and Tibetan translator had put me in touch with. I messaged him on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese messaging app, to see if he was in town – but he said he was away, in a mountain village in the far north of the province to spend the Tibetan new year, Losar, in a prayer ceremony. “As always, I follow the living Buddha,” he texted me. I read it as a humble-brag about his spiritual piety.

The next day I rented a car, and drove six hours north to find Sonam. With me was Zhang Xi, a Beijinger whom I had met at my bed-and-breakfast on ‘Shambala Avenue’, and who was also keen to get out of the tourist trap. Zhang Xi was in his late thirties, solidly middle-class, with a stable white-collar job at a state highway construction firm. But, as he kept telling me, he yearned for more – for travel, the Himalayas, and a “simple life, like the Tibetans.” In fact he yearned so much for it that his Wechat nickname, and his English name, was just the word ‘Simple’. With ten days off for the Chinese new year, he had bought his plane ticket to Shangri-la the night before, on a spontaneous whim. And so, in a puttering Volkswagen, Simple and I drove off to climb higher onto the Tibetan plateau.

Simple takes a selfie on the road to Kawakarpo with the author

Out first destination was a Tibetan holy mountain range called Meili Xueshan (梅里雪山) in Chinese, a homophone for ‘Beautiful Snow Mountain’. This towering range is famous throughout China, attracting selfie-takers from China and pilgrims from Tibet. At the top of the highest peak of Kawakarpo, at 6740m, a protective diety is supposed to live, forbidding any mortal from reaching the summit (and none ever has, with all attempts called off due to avalanche or lack of permit). Simple told me he had wanted to see Kawakarpo ever since he first laid eyes, a few years back, on a postcard of sunrise burning ochre on its mountainside; it was that image that gave him his first wanderlust.

For lunch we stopped at Deqen, the last Tibetan town of northwest Yunnan. Simple was out of love with city life, he confided, and wanted to escape to the countryside – where his neighbours would know him and life would be, well, simple. But his wife didn’t feel the same way, and wanted to stay in Beijing where the wages were higher and their son would have a better education. “My wife doesn’t understand me,” he confessed quietly, as if she might hear us. Simple’s favourite phrase was “it is fate”, zhe shi yuanfen. That in a bed-and-breakfast he should meet an Englishman and drive up to Kawakarpo together: that was yuanfen. To go on to meet a Buddhist monk: that too was yuanfen. When he pointed to a fish wriggling in its tank that we asked the streetside restaurateur to cook for us, he quipped: “It is this fish’s fate to die.”

Around the bend was Feilaisi (飞来寺), the “flying monastery” perched on the side of a cliff, looking out across the gulf at Kawakarpo. The Sakyamuni Buddha supposedly flew here to found the temple, after seeing the peak in a dream. Now a strip of small hotels had sprung up on the other side of the road, each raised higher than the one in front so that patrons are not denied their mountain view. Below them was a wooden platform, boundaried by prayer flag bunting, where the best photographs could be taken. Simple walked up and down for forty-five minutes, taking the same picture of the mountain with his selfie-stick, over and over and over again. Then he just stood for a minute, and looked at it.

To one side of the living Buddha’s throne, a metre-high tower of Red Bull energy drinks towered intimidatingly over the faithful”

From Kawakarpo we continued another three hours north, on narrow roads to a Tibetan village tucked into a high valley within sight of the mountain peaks, where Sonam was waiting for us. Smiling, draped in crimson robes, this was the monk who said he followed the living Buddha. As we talked, it turned out that he was being quite literal: his big brother was a living Buddha, and Sonam followed him around.

A squat, well-built Tibetan in saffron robes and aviator shades, the living Buddha lived in Shangri-la, but every new year they went to villages further afield, so that Tibetans in the area (including from just across the border in the Tibetan Autonomous Region) could more easily travel to receive his blessing. Living Buddhas (活佛) are not uncommon in greater Tibet; they are often attached to a monastery, and have to be state approved for official status as a reincarnate lama – as this one was proud to tell me he was. Among the first things he did, on seeing that a foreigner had come to visit, was to show me a photo of him with the movie actress Goldie Hawn, whom he had met at a Buddhist conference in Germany a few years back. I flipped through the other pictures on his iPad, all enrobed selfies from his travels: in front of the Sydney Opera House, the Golden Gate Bridge, Tiananmen Square. Dharma for the digital age.

We stayed in the village that night, huddled under blankets. In the morning, the second day of the new year, the pilgrims came. The first to arrive were a young Tibetan couple from across the border who couldn’t conceive a child, accompanied by their concerned siblings and parents. Approaching the living Buddha, they proffered a white khata, the ceremonial Tibetan silk scarf, held out in two hands as a gesture of respect. He asked them a few questions about their troubles, looked them up and down with a faintly disapproving scowl, then hummed a mantra over the khata and draped it over their neck as a blessing.

The living Buddha receives supplicants, with a shrine of Red Bull to his side

Over the course of the day, the trickle of supplicants became a stream, each with their own particular problem (generally health related) or generic wish for good fortune, until the reception room was filled with visitors queuing to see him. Some talked for a long time, presumably getting into the nitty-gritty of the issue (I don’t understand Tibetan, but Sonam gave basic translations). Others just wanted for him to touch them on the forehead before moving on. Throughout it all he sat crosslegged in sunglasses on a raised platform in one corner, implacably thumbing a rosary bead.

It was customary for visitors to give an offering as well. This was typically a hundred-yuan note, slipped underneath the platform. But a gift of food or beverage was also traditional, and the room was lined with apples, candy and cans of beer and soda, stacked in pyramids on low, squat tables. Red Bull was an especially popular gift, as the can was an appealing gold color, came in plastic-wrapped twelve packs, and was readily available in the village convenience store, where Simple and I picked up a pack as our own offering. To one side of the living Buddha’s throne, a metre-high tower of Red Bull towered intimidatingly over the faithful, as if he were the reincarnated bodhissatva of stimulant drinks.

At the end of the day, everyone went outside to a balcony overlooking the sun-drenched valley, for a group photo. The living Buddha took a central position in the same unchanging pose, while his acolytes, including Simple and I, sat to either side as if in church pews. Simple had been quiet all day, drinking in the atmosphere and hardly taking any pictures. Later, back in Beijing, we met for hotpot and he told me that the day in the mountains had made him think about Buddhism in a different way, as something that city people could learn from too, not just the Tibetans. He has wanted to return ever since, but his city and family obligations make it difficult.

A group photo after the ceremony; Simple and the author are to the left

The following dawn, we left the village and drove further north still, zigzagging vertically up a mountain road to top the hilly contour at Ruiwan – the last settlement inside Yunnan before the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which I would need a permit to enter. Near the crest of the ridge, almost 5000 metres above sea level, a swift mountain spring fed a wooden watermill stuffed with Buddhist mantras – a hands-free prayer wheel, muttering its circular devotions for as long as the waters ran. Looking northwest, the wind slapping my face while I sipped on a spare Red Bull, I could see into the next valley across: Tibet. Simple gazed at it with a longing. He didn’t want to turn back. ∎

Header: The Kawakarpo peak of Meilixueshan. (James Wheeler/Flickr)