Travel: From the birth of Mao's utopia to true Shangri-la

Lois Jones discovers that heaven is full of tourists

So this rock I'm standing on is in heaven. My walking boots and oh-so-mortal blisters are on immortal ground. Explorers, travellers and truth-seekers have hunted for centuries for earthly utopia and I'm smack bang in the middle of it. I'm in Shangri-la, the fabled paradise of British writer James Hilton's bestseller Lost Horizon. According to the Chinese press, government and tourist authorities, however, Shangri- la is fact not fiction and rubs shoulders with Tibet in Yunnan province, south-west China.

Before many knew it was lost, the Chinese declared Shangri-la to be found. In November 1997, the China Daily reported that the fabled Shangri-la of James Hilton's 1933 bestseller was indeed Deqin county of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Government and tourist officials agree; western experts invited to examine the geography of the area back them up. They point to the mountain, Mount Meilixue, as evidence; its summit, Kagebo peak, mirrors the pyramid-shaped landmark of Hilton's book, and the county's blood-red valleys with three parallel rivers matches Lost Horizon's scenery. A fan of the novel, I decide to take a look for myself.

The road to paradise is a rocky one. Standing between me and Shangri- la are the Chinese police, a bone-jerking bus journey, a non-English- speaking Tibetan driver, and hordes of camera-clicking Chinese tourists. In Hilton's novel, the characters who reach Shangri-la are survivors of a plane crash in the mountains. They're just lucky the Chinese minibus hadn't been invented by then. I clamber on to an innocuous-looking vehicle in Lijiang, blissfully unaware that this hunk of rusty metal is to catapult me into a nightmare journey of white-knuckled terror on my 123-mile ride to Zhongdian - the last jumping-off point before Shangri-la.

Several hair-raising hours into our journey, lurching along tiny mountain roads, we screech to a halt, just missing a truckload of pigs in front. The top of a mountain pass seems a funny place for a toilet-break. An hour later, it seems even less funny. I extract an English-speaker from among the 20-odd buses, trucks and snuffling pigs lining the route.

"We've stopped because of an accident up ahead and we can't continue until the local police officer arrives," he explains. I resign myself to another half-hour spent twiddling my thumbs until I'm told: "The policeman could be anywhere in the county. He'll be here in eight to 12 hours." After what seems a lifetime, the police officer arrives. This man of supreme authority is wearing blue plastic flip-flops and his trousers hang above his ankles. But after much ticking of forms, waving of his tape measure and scratching of his head, he beckons us on our way.

The town of Zhongdian soars high at 3,200m (10,500ft) and my head and lungs know it. I haul my floppy body into a taxi, which I've hired for the day, and grin at the Tibetan driver. We share a lot of grinning over the next six hours - he can't speak English, and Tibetan was never on my school's curriculum. At one point, he tries to make me drive. I mumble that I don't know the way, forgetting that there is only one road ahead in this remote mountain region.

A Tibetan folk-music tape squeals us on our way, punctuated by the honk of the car's horn. Every pedestrian gets the horn treatment, followed by every yak and sheep as we move from town to country.

Besides the horn blasts, there's absolute silence, a perfect backdrop to alpine flowers, clear lakes and the virgin splendour of white pyramid mountains. We spiral upwards until we eventually reach a row of wooden chalets at the foot of a mountain-path - Shangri-la. My driver flicks a "V" sign at me. Victory, clear off, peace or the Chinese symbol for two? I opt for the latter but am none the wiser - two people, mountains, horns? He points at his watch and then the path in front of me. So I'm to toddle up there for the next two hours? I suppose Shangri-la is as good a place as any to be alone and lost.

A busload of Chinese tourists interrupts my thoughts. I'm clearly not going to be alone on my walk. One of the tourists, Jack, speaks English so Jack and I go up the hill. Jack is a useful interpreter for my questions to their tour guide. "Why are you certain that this is Shangri-la?" I ask. "It's here that you find sun (man) and moon (woman) in heart," she replies. Well, that explains it then.

Nearly 100 peaks, almost all over 6,000m high, stand above me, of which Kagebo is the highest - 6,740m above sea level. Tibetan legend has it that the mountain once was a devil with nine heads and 18 arms, and Kagebo clearly doesn't welcome visitors as Japanese, US and UK mountaineers have all tried to conquer the peak but failed.

I am content to leave Kagebo in peace and rest somewhere around his ankles in the foothills. But the soaring peaks, grasslands, lush lakes, waterfalls and glaciers are stunning. This is paradise. Shangri-la doesn't need a government stamp or a spot on a tourist map to prove that to me.

But my imaginary picture of Shangri-la had never depicted crowds of tourists. Hilton's Shangri-la was a haven, "beyond the grasp of a doomed world". I wonder how he would feel if he saw the commercial exploitation of his utopia, the hordes of visitors and the huge airport nearby. The tourists are getting closer. I turn to Jack before I lose sight of my earthly paradise, and say: "Let's go."

ON THE TRAIL OF MAO AND SHANGRI-LA

GETTING THERE

For the south-west of China, it is slightly quicker to fly via Hong Kong. For Yan'an, fly to Peking. Return fares from London to Peking can drop below pounds 400 with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) or Air China (tel: 0171-630 0919). Return fares to Hong Kong are slightly more expensive.

Getting to Kunming or Yan'an depends on time and money. Train travel can take several days (comfortable berths are best booked in advance through local travel agents). Internal flights are frequent and safer than in the past, but not as cheap as trains.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Visas are required and are available from Chinese embassies. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the expiry date of your visa. Embassy of the People's Republic of China (tel: 0891 880808; calls cost 50p per minute).

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