We’ve called this often grueling trip from Chengdu, the Back Road to Shangri-la. A few days ago, we entered the high gate to the garden of Shangri-la. We topped out above 15,000 feet each day, and often stayed there for hours. We meandered the Tibetan Plateau, in company with yaks and Tibetans, surrounded by a landscape stippled with stupas, prayer flags, tiny wildflowers and singing mountain streams. Meadows of jade steepened up to fresh snow covered peaks, at least some days backed by a cobalt sky and cotton clouds.
At least one day was miserable with rain and we cut our day short, rain soaked and freezing, at an unheated roadhouse infested with Mahjongg playing and yelling, day off revelers. But those are not the things we will remember. We will remember the smiling Tibetan greetings of “tashi dele” from every roadside yak camp or a passing motorcycle, laden with bags of grain, and sometimes the whole family.
We will remember the hours long climb each day, each switchback revealing new wonders of high meadows and lines of blinding peaks. Then we begin the long descent through rock walled paddocks, friendly villages, and herds of yaks and deep gorges of evergreens, autumn coloring trees and roaring streams.
Do the people here live to very old ages? Are they always healthy and happy as the Shangri-la myth tells? No, they are mortals, increasingly invaded by the outside world, nudged into ways foreign to their culture and religion. But from the smiles on their faces as we pass, an exceedingly strange apparition from afar, the hearty waves and open-faced surprise, I know they are a happy people. We were told by one man that they don’t even think about the weather, no matter how bad, and it can be very bad! That tells me the Buddhist philosophy is real and alive in their lives. We’re not there yet, especially when it comes to weather!
So Shangri-la is in some measure real, at least here in the high meadows. There is much more to discover, much more to come.