Travel: In search of Utopia amid the jade hills

Shangri-La may really exist in the mountains of south-west China. Katherine Tanko went to find out
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I came to Lijiang in south-west China in search of paradise - real paradise. It was James Hilton's Lost Horizon that introduced the world to the mountaintop haven of Shangri-La. First published in 1933, the book tells of four westerners abducted to an isolated snow-bound monastery where time has slowed to a blissful crawl and the facilities rival those of the finest five-star hotel.

According to the local scholar Xuan Ke, Shangri-La is not in Tibet - as was thought - but in the mountains of northwest Yunnan. "When I read Lost Horizon, I was amazed," he said, "It was very similar to Lijiang, very similar to Joseph Rock's writings. His vision must have come from Rock's writings, his photos."

Joseph Rock, an Austro-American, lived near Lijiang from 1922 to 1949 and wrote extensively on local history, culture and flora. It was his articles and photographs published in National Geographic in the Twenties and Thirties that first introduced the outside world to this hitherto unknown region - and presumably inspired Hilton's vision of Shangri-La.

So what is it about Lijiang and the surrounding countryside that could prompt dreams of Utopia? By all accounts, pre-revolutionary Lijiang was unique; a wealthy trading town of babbling brooks and well-trimmed flower gardens, where crime and poverty were virtually unknown and many ethnic groups traded freely and on an equal footing. Peter Goullart, a Russian who lived in Lijiang in the 1940s, gushed about "the beauty of this paradisiacal valley".

Even today it looks good. At 2,400 metres, Lijiang has the kind of endless blue skies and brilliant sunshine normally associated with the Himalayas. The climate is mild, the people friendly and the 800-year-old town almost too pretty. Disappearing down a narrow cobbled lane, I was soon lost in a medieval maze of ancient curved roofs, stone bridges and smooth flagstone streets lined with rickety wooden houses. Naxi women - Lijiang's main ethnic group - dressed in traditional blue capes and not-so-traditional Mao caps, moved through the street in gossiping packs, lugging baskets of produce to market.

I made for Mama Fu's restaurant, a delightful canal-side cafe in the heart of the old town. Beneath a floppy umbrella, I sipped strong Yunnan coffee and nibbled fresh strawberries. The restaurant was run by the robust Mama and her 20-year-old daughter Kitty. Among the matriarchal Naxi, it is the women who hold economic power, and control all aspects of trade and commerce while men are traditionally child-minders, gardeners and musicians.

After two years spent working in a paper mill, Kitty was now second in command of the Mama Fu empire. "In Lijiang, women work and men rest," she said as her father arrived, bird cage in hand. Bird-keeping is almost a full-time occupation for many Naxi men who pamper their songbirds with daily walks and loving baths in the river.

The smell of food permeated the city. At the side of the road a woman sold warm roast potatoes sprinkled with cayenne pepper while another fried bread in a wok. I wandered down a street lined with tiny restaurants where big clay pots bubbled over red-hot charcoal. For the price of a Royal Mail postage stamp I got a steaming bowl of noodles with pork dumplings and pickled cabbage.

On the corner of Mao square, it cost me less than a pound to hire a bicycle for the day. Within a few minutes I was peddling through the countryside, the fields a shimmering patchwork of green paddy and yellow rapeseed. Cutting down a dirt road, I ended up in Baisha, a village full of wooden farmhouses and wandering pigs. More than a dozen temples once graced these plains, of which only four remain. In Yufeng Monastery is a revered camellia tree "of 10,000 blossoms" kept alive by a monk who secretly watered it during the Cultural Revolution.

No visit to Baisha is complete without a visit to Dr Ho. A traditional Chinese doctor, Dr Ho achieved fame after writer Bruce Chatwin published a story romanticising this "Taoist physician in the Jade-Dragon Mountains of Lijiang". Coasting past his house on my bicycle, I was beckoned to stop and visit. Seated on wooden benches in front of his modest clinic (full of sacks of fragrant herbs and powders extracted from plants found only in the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains), Dr Ho served his medicinal tea, and bombarded me with glowing comment books and press clippings attesting to his fame.

Cycling back to Lijiang, along pebble roads lined with willows and rushing streams, it was easy to see how the valley could inspire dreams of Utopia. But I still wanted to explore another contender for the title of Shangri- La, six hours north, in the Tibetan town of Zhongdian - once known by the Tibetan name Shanbala. At 3,200 metres, it is the lasttown before the Tibetan border and it has a monastery on the outskirts.

Zhongdian turned out to be a one-street town with a frontier feel and a lot of hotels. I caught a bus to Songzanling monastery, a collection of mud and clay houses scattered across a hillside. Songzanling had once been a large, thriving monastery of the Yellow Hat sect. The monastery was destroyed after the Tibetan uprising of 1959, yet more than 300 monks have returned.

From behind high, shuttered windows came the sound of children chanting and the clear ringing of prayer bells. As I made my way down a muddy path, a young monk invited me in for tea. I stepped into a courtyard where another monk was brewing yak butter and tea.

The younger monk brought a plate of tsampa, or roasted barley meal. Following his lead, I put some into my palm, rolled it around, then popped it into my mouth followed by a swig of yak butter tea. They asked for a photo. I gave them a passport photo of myself; they laughed, then shook their heads and returned it. No, a photo of the Dalai Lama. It seemed a far cry from the Shangri-La of Rock and Hilton. But as Xuan Ke had said: "If people think Shangri-La is one place, this is a mistake. They will not find it. Shangri-La is not just a place. It is also a dream."

Fact File

Getting to China: Both British Airways (0345 222 111) and Air China (0171-630 0919) fly three times a week between Heathrow and Peking. BA has a World Offer of pounds 399 (with tax) return; Air China quotes a pounds 540 (with tax) return fare. A more useful gateway to China is Hong Kong, served by these airlines and also by Virgin Atlantic (011293 747747) and Cathay Pacific (0171-747 8888).

Red tape: To travel to China apart from Hong Kong, British passport holders need a Chinese visa, obtainable through the China Travel Service, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9DL (0171-836 3688)

Money: The Chinese Yuan trades at a rate of around Y13 =pounds 1. Hong Kong dollars are widely accepted in China.