“A home to royally-kept farmland toned in an infinite array of viridian and amber, perfection is briefly disrupted only by jet-black forests mystically peppering the Panavision landscape. Majestic white wood-smoke hazily fills the crisp mountain air, settling nonchalantly above petite farming villages nestled snugly in the valley creases. Mint-blue glacial rivers meander from peak to platter, leisurely conversing with archaic leathery trees, company only to the cattle who graze quietly along the water’s edge.”
The Temple of a Million Years
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan
As a young archaeologist in the nineties, I once sat studying Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the dusty basement of the British Institute for Archaeology in Amman, Jordan. Surrounded by newly unearthed pottery sherds, stone tools, bronze and flint from Jordan’s ancient history, it was hard to fit in my passion of Egypt before one of the directors shooed me off to catalog medieval pottery instead. Eighteen years old and I could already decipher a fair number of glyphs using dusty eighteenth-century textbooks from a small library time seemed to have forgotten. One evening I found myself gazing at the inscription of a stele dedicated to Ramses the Second, a decree regarding the state of his memorial temple, his ‘House of millions of years’. As fate would have it, Christian Jacq, French author, and Egyptologist had just that year stoked my imagination with his latest novel Ramses and the Temple of Eternity, a lavishly descriptive account of this very temple, built for Ramses during Egypt’s pharaonic goldern era, the height of the New Kingdom. The novel and stele would stay with me until one afternoon in Asia, some fifteen years later.
Deep in southern China, enveloped in the clouds of an early afternoon thunderstorm just outside Dali, I remember Ramses and his magnificent memorial temple as I point a lens at southern China’s dynastic architecture. The majesty of these structures is breathtaking in itself, but it’s the concept of constructing a temple to last for eternity that rings in my ears and southern China does not disappoint. A momentary memory unearths from a university seminar; that the world is full of similarities – from Egypt to Mexico to China to India to Easter Island our ancestors strove to be remembered until the end of time, to etch their mark on this mortal world for all to witness in awe, to stand in the presence of their gateway to the heavens.
This particular temple sits towards the back of the Three Pillars complex just outside Dali, in China’s Yunnan province. One would be forgiven if they missed it whilst visiting; the main thoroughfare takes you past the core attraction, three large pillars, and then on to a larger temple to light some incense and buy the obligatory wrist bangle. Venture off the beaten track, however, and you’re rewarded with this majestic scene and not a soul in sight. Okay, maybe one.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yarkant
Shangri-La is surely in the top 10 on all
adventure-traveler’s hit-lists, but this mythical outpost of Utopian freedom is rather hard to find; as is stands there are currently numerous locales around central Asia that claim its namesake. And for good reason, the tourism boost alone would be enough to fill even the deepest of empty coffers.
As the fabled Eden ingrained in modern literature by James Hilton’s cult adventure ‘Lost Horizon’, Shangri-La embodies everything that is balanced, positive and free about our world and, if real at all, arguably stems from Tibetan culture some two thousand years ago. It sounded wonderful, so we decided to take a look ourselves.
Arriving in north-west Yunnan province, we find ourselves in Zhongdian, a bustling town considered by the Chinese to be the real deal. We’re immediately confronted by dilapidated concrete architecture, diesel-spewing mini-buses, and hordes of loud Chinese tourists exploding from existence at all angles, surely this can’t be right, maybe we took a wrong turn somewhere? Rummaging through camera bags we hurriedly check the Lonely Planet and
realise our mistake; we’ve arrived at the wrong end of Eden. Hailing a cab, we pick our way through the modern monstrosity and finally settle into Kevin’s calm and quiet guest house just outside the old town. The part we should have arrived at had our guide known where he was going.
Hitting the rooftop for a grand vista of Shangri-La’s archaic heart, my 500mm catches a golden glimmer of what I soon find out to be the world’s largest prayer wheel, requiring a full score of healthy individuals to rotate it. Panning to the right a little I fall on ubiquitous multicolored Tibetan flags leading from tree to tree, surrounding a deep red-brown wooden temple roof. Wildly-vivid
colours adorn the ancient brown woodwork, a temple surrounded by cobbled streets worn smooth from millennia of dragging feet. Coffee shops and cafes spill out on to small squares filled with dancing Tibetans, each circling to a rhythmic beat of drums and mystical instruments singing a song of Shangri-La.
The Chinese may be on to something.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan
Standing adeptly at the water’s edge, women rake water-born adult Lotus plants from a still lake surface, hauling their quarry to piles as high as themselves. Others balance aboard a bamboo raft, ushering stubborn plants to the water’s edge for harvesting. Towering above the motley crew of would-be sailors, an ancient temple adorns the central placement on a bridge scanning the width of the lake. Once a grand expression on the landscape, the Dragongate now acts as a shelter from the vicious sun for local farmers and tourists. And the occasional photographer.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan
Rain pummels the small isolated village somewhere in the mountains of Southern China, the welcome torrents pour from the tiled roofs, splashing the stone work, cleaning the dust from wooden windows framing the occasional wizened country face looking out at the deluge. The crops will be watered well, as will the tourists.
Large bulbous drops of water fall from the dark clouds hanging over our wooden café roof, thus beginning the now daily routine of washing dust and debris from the cobbled roads and brightly colored tiled roofs. Sitting on the second floor of a pristine eatery I watch through the open shutters as passersby shudder under open umbrellas and smoke in the crammed doorways providing a little shelter from the onslaught waiting for a brief window where they run to the next doorway and light up again.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Shaxi
Wet and beaten from a whilstle-stop over-subscribed tour of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, we walk the cobbled streets of another local Na Xi village and finally come to rest at a café. I order cabbage and pork. Longest waiting time ever. From the window I can see a whole severed pigs head laying in the wet damp heat of a humid afternoon.
The Look Out
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Kunming
Elderly women massage the weary legs of equally elderly men whilst entrepreneurs off-load the latest craze direct from Shenzhen to eager buyers. Down on the riverside, wannabe pop-stars wait patiently to perform their favorite croon through a 5-dollar portable mic and speaker. The idle audience of fan waving, chit-chatting voyeurs are a tough crowd to please.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan highlands
Ambling steadily, laden with a day’s work, she steps through rice paddies and over irrigation channels churning with dark-brown liquid, her head down and focused. Covered eyes offer no secrets, glazed over with the reticence of another day in the field.
The Daily Routine
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan
Perched on a rock the captive eyes its captor with internal rage, a rage suppressed over years, cultivated with pain, depression, anxiety, and stress. This humiliating daily routine has taken its toll, the only way out is to fly high. If only he had wings.
The Construction Trail
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan highways
The construction boom continues at full pelt across the continent, with Kunming and it’s surrounding provinces being no different. The capital of Yunnan, Kunming is a vast concrete jungle peppered with the occasional canal, pet market and tourist cafe. But step outside the city and you’ll find a landscape worthy of the title Shangri-La. The cement business, however, is booming along the Yellow
river, with sand and clay mining dotted along the banks as you travel through the lush green countryside, and with new UNESCO heritage sites popping up at an unprecedented rate, there is high demand for this cheap building material all over southern China.
With a mighty roar, our sleek black Sedan pulls away from the reaming torrents and hooting tourists, swooping away from the valley floor towards the snowy peaks as if a dragon waking from slumber.
Passing fresh-faced and eager cyclists, we start our own ascent to the heavens, our Dragon’s wings beating slowly as we crawl up roads so narrow we watch debris tumbling down the steep valley sides. Higher we climb, passing through long humid tunnels and rocky narrow outcrops, periodically waving to our cycling compatriots who are now panting hard and peddling harder. Salt burns their eyes, the sun their arms. As we reach the cloud line, aggressive nebulas cluster with an untold urgency, gluing and clotting in hues of charcoal and slate. Powerful adolescent rays smash through the mobilizing vapor setting the moist air ablaze, tempting out shy beads of water from the now thinning air. Bulbous water droplets batter the saturated cyclists, evidently making their ascent an adventure they’ll not forget.
Ever upwards we
Peering through thick mist we try to make sense of the eerie ghosts passing us by, nothing seems real, shapes extruded and elongated beyond recognition. Seemingly trapped in this event horizon for an eternity, we suddenly emerge victoriously, punching an exit through the swirling ceiling of this no man’s land. We wave once again to our cycling entourage, their spirits lifting as the wet, grey veil falls far below, and finally, we cast our eyes on the ice-capped peaks and lush green valleys of Shangri-La.
Gently lolloping emerald hills bump and merge seamlessly into one another as if boundaries were meaningless. A home to royally-kept farmland toned in an infinite array of viridian and amber, perfection is briefly disrupted only by jet-black forests mystically peppering the Panavision landscape. Majestic white wood-smoke hazily fills the crisp mountain air, settling nonchalantly above petite farming villages nestled snugly in the valley creases. Mint-blue glacial rivers meander from peak to platter, leisurely conversing with archaic leathery trees, company only to the cattle who graze quietly along the water’s edge.
Snaking our way through this paradise on earth, we pass distinctly Tibetan architecture, old wisened yaks tending well-worked fields, bright yellow wicker hats set amongst a sea of green vegetation, reds and blues and yellows and wood and grass and hay and sunlight laid out for all to see in the auspicious royalty of Shangri-La’s summer.