My wife wanted me to join her on a trip to Lijian and the Yunnan province in China, but I had refused … until she said, “It includes Shangri La!”

Shangri La has captivated my imagination ever since I saw the 1973 movie Lost Horizon. Is there really a Garden of Eden, a mystical valley hidden somewhere in the Himalayas, an idyllic place of refuge where happy and content people live almost immortal lives that are cut off from the strife and pain of the outside world?

I wanted to find out more.

We took a direct four-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Lijiang, located 2,400m above sea level. A light drizzle, and crisp and cold air greeted our arrival and remained with us over the next couple of days. A fog stubbornly hung low, hiding mountain peaks and valleys too. As if in tandem, our hearts sank, for what could one see through a fog?

The next morning, we took a three-hour bus ride to Lugu Lake (2,800m). As the fog lifted intermittently and the drizzle stopped for a bit, we were rewarded along the journey with glimpses of scrubby and angular mountain slopes hemming tight narrow valleys planted with tobacco and corn.

Lugu Lake was crystal clear and floating on the water were thousands of little white flowers on long slender stems anchored to the bottom. At first I thought the flowers were blown there. It was a beautiful sight!

We took a half-hour boat ride to a temple on Liwubi island located in the middle of the lake. On reflection, it was a comical sight; we had our raincoats on, and over it our very primitive life jackets of styrofoam blocks sewn together, with one hand raised to hold an umbrella and the other clutching the side of the boat. To cheer ourselves up, we sang Michael Row The Boat Ashore followed by other songs till our fears evaporated.

Shangri La

Boat ride to Liwubi, China.

The Lugu Lake area is famous for its Musuo community. This is the kingdom of women, a society where the woman is the head of the household and everything follows the maternal blood line. In a “walking marriage”, a unique aspect of Musuo culture, if a man is chosen as a partner, usually at a “fire dance” where villagers gather to socialise, he will visit the woman at her family home at night and must return to his mother’s home before sunrise. When a child is conceived, it will be raised by the woman and her brothers. The man continues to live in his mother’s home and help raise his sisters’ offspring.

We returned to Lijiang the following day to give our body more time to adjust to the high altitudes that we would later ascend.

At Lijiang, we visited its 800-year-old town where we walked on cobbled streets and navigated through canals and ornate bridges in a sort of maze where one can easily get lost. There were lots of well-preserved wooden shops selling flower pastries, silverware handicraft and dried yak meat. Deep purple bougainvillea, red blooms of begonias and lush green weeping willows provided a colourful contrast.

We were surprised that despite being packed with tourists, the town was clean and litter-free.

We then walked to the Black Dragon Pool Park where a marble bridge across the lake, with the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background, provided a perfect “Chinese painting” backdrop for a photo.

The next day we were at Liming, enroute to Shangri La. Here a cable car took us up to explore the Thousand Turtles Mountain in Lao Junshan National Park where weathering over thousands of years has produced a fascinating landscape that looks like the shell of a turtle. We stayed the night at Tiger Leaping town.

Shangri La

Turtle Shell Mountain in China.

On the sixth day, we finally arrived at Shangri La (3,300m), near the eastern end of the Tibetan plateau. Originally Zhongdian County, it was renamed Shangri La in 2001, a Tibetan word meaning a land of sacredness and peace.

Our journey there took us through breathtaking alpine landscapes and deep valleys which gradually opened up to a grassy plateau. Stupas with colourful prayer flags dotted the road as the air grew thinner and the buildings looked more Tibetan in design. Black pigs ran wild and during a stop, one hungry pig chased after my wife who had a biscuit in her hand!

Deep Valleys and grassy plateaus in China.

We were taken aback by our first sight of Shangri La town: A humungous white stupa, newly built but not open to devotees, stared down at us. Further along, rows and rows of new concrete buildings with Tibetan-looking overhangs lined the wide boulevards. There was neither an air of mystery nor the charm of history in this town; I was deeply disappointed.

Shangri La

The writer at the entrance to Shangri La, China.

Where would I find a hint of the mystical Shangri La described in Lost Horizon?

Fortunately, our guide led us to Dukezong, a 1,300-year-old Tibetan village in Shangri La used as a stopover by tea merchants on their way to Tibet. This Tibetan village had been recently restored after a massive fire in 2014 engulfed most it. Although the structures are new they exuded a charm reminiscent of the days of yore.

Our visit by cable car to the nearby Shika Snow Mountain (4,500m) the next day turned out to be the highlight in Shangri La. We brought along oxygen canisters as double insurance against altitude sickness (besides our pills). Blustering and biting-cold winds failed to deter me from scaling multiple flights of wooden walkways to the very top to snap once-in-a-lifetime pictures of the surrounding Jade Dragon mountain, Haba Snow Mountain and Meili Xueshan.

On our return journey to Lijiang, we stopped at Turtle Mountain Provincial Park where we visited a Buddhist temple with the largest prayer wheel. I joined others turning it and silently prayed for a safe journey home.

Even though we didn’t find our mystical Shangri La, we thoroughly enjoyed our journey to north-western Yunnan, where over yak tea and yak meat dinners we forged new friendships with other Malaysians who came on a similar journey of discovery.