By Peter Klika
This story begins in the spring of 1989 when I received a letter from the Chinese Mountaineering Association which opened: “No road, no map, many wild animals, much danger there.” The letter ended with the magic words I was looking for: “You have our permission to go, but you also need approval by the Sichuan Province authorities as well as the council of lamas of the former Kingdom of Muli.”
I quickly fired off letters in my child-like Chinese characters to each of the three authorities from whom I needed permission, explaining that each of the other two had already given theirs. The subterfuge worked. Six weeks later I was at the Chinese Consulate with my three letters applying for a group expedition visa to Muli. When the clerk handed me the visa with a special endorsement for Muli, he said: “You have much luck. Even Chinese people cannot go to Muli”.
I had been trying to get permission to visit Muli since 1982 when I first read about it in the July 1931 edition of National Geographic Magazine in an article entitled: “Konka Risumgongba, Holy Mountain of the Outlaws” by Dr. Joseph Rock. I had always had a hunch that Muli served as the inspiration for the Shangri-La described in James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon.” The timing of the two was too much to be a coincidence. The National Geographic article appeared in July 1931 and “Lost Horizon” appeared in April 1933. More importantly, there were at least 20 references in “Lost Horizon” to features that were unique to Muli as described in the National Geographic article including even a reference to “the man from the Geographic.”
Situated in southwestern Sichuan Province, where the great Tibetan Plateau thrusts into China (28 N. Lat.; 100 E. Long.) the area of Muli is heavily forested with spruce, fir, pine, oak, larch and juniper. In addition, the region is home to some of the most exotic flora and fauna in China including the Chinese elk, the rare golden monkey, the spectacular Lady Amherst’s pheasant and the elusive snow leopard. Flora includes the blue poppy, extensive rhododendron forests, including the rare black rhododendron, giant rhubarb and many still unclassified species of plant and insect life. Once described as a “veritable Noah’s Ark of peoples”, southwestern Sichuan is also the home of many of China’s minorities including Yi , Hsifan, Naxi, Mosu, Konkaling, and Tibetans. Some of the most beautiful unclimbed mountains in the world lie within the former kingdom. These include spectacular Jambeyang, Shenrezi, and Ckhanadorje (each estimated at 20,000 feet). They are named after a Tibetan trinity of gods who are said to inhabit these three icy pinnacles.
In the fall of 1998, Xuan Ke, a Chinese scholar and expert in Tibetan languages, independently identified the Muli region as the inspiration for the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon, the popular 1933 novel by James Hilton. In a March 26, 2001 article “Searching for Shangri-La,” the international edition of Newsweek also identified Muli as “definitely the model for Shangri-La.” Lost Horizon was later made by Frank Capra into the Oscar winning movie of the same name starring Ronald Coleman and Jane Wyatt.
In a recent interview with the Manchester Guardian, Xuan Ke said: “Shangri-La (Muli) is not for tourists. It is for people who want to find harmony. They should come and find this place.” I had always remembered Ronald Coleman’s last line in the movie: “May we all someday find our own Shangri-La.”
Finding Muli is now thankfully relatively easy for the adventurous traveler because of a new gravel road from Litang to Snow Mountain Monastery to the north of Mt. Shenrezi. You can even book a bus tour in Chengdu which includes a two night stay at a colorful Tibetan tent camp in a meadow near the monastery with spectacular views of unclimbed Chanadorje.
Shrouded in mystery, the Kingdom of Muli, was traditionally closed not only to all foreigners but also to Chinese, who even if they gained entry were forbidden to ever leave again. Formidable mountain ranges and deep river chasms coupled with fierce bandits further kept Muli hidden from the world’s view. The kingdom remained independent until the Communist Revolution in 1949 when it became an autonomous district within Sichuan, but closed again to the outside world.
Dr. Joseph Rock, while gathering rhododendrons for a National Geographic expedition in 1925, was the first westerner to explore Muli. Rock described the area as follows: “A scenic wonder of the world, this region is a 45 day walk from the nearest railhead. For centuries it may remain a closed land, save to such a privileged few as care to crawl like ants through its canyons of tropical heat and up its glaciers in blinding snow storms.”
Six weeks after obtaining my special permit to visit Muli, our twelve expedition members were careening down a narrow logging road in a convoy of four jeeps. Anticipation was high as our Chinese liaison officers told us Muli was just around the corner. Two minutes later, Mr. Ma proudly announced our arrival in Muli! We were greeted by several dingy cinder block buildings belching smoke, a clutter of decrepit tin shacks, and rusting bicycles ridden by surly- looking Yi men in dirty Mao jackets and black turbans.
At a banquet that night feating the first foreigners to ever visit Muli, our mood was somber. I asked the official to my right about the beautiful central monastery that had served as the political and spiritual capital of the former kingdom: “All gone,” he said. “We’re modern now.”
“The lamas?” I queried. “All gone too, sent for reeducation.”
“The king?” I asked. “What king?” smiled my host.
My expedition mates were sullen. One of the climbers had fashioned a climbing rope into a noose and they were pointing it at me. I began to feel ill.
Our host then introduced me to Mr. Su, our local guide and a member of the Yi ethnic minority. Mr. Su took me aside. “He doesn’t know anything about Muli. He’s just a bureaucrat from Beijing you know,” Su emphasized in perfect English. Later I learned Su was a graduate of the prestigious Minorities University in Beijing. “This is the administrative center of Muli Tibetan Autonomous County. The old monastery is 80 km from here. We can go there tomorrow.” I laughed and reached thankfully for a bottle of the local “Green Leaf” beer and swallowed deeply. The noose was untied.
Next morning our jeeps wound for hours in a compound low gear up a steep and narrow logging road. At several points we had to fell small trees (“Dragon Spruce”) to bridge the deep mud caused by unseasonal pre-monsoon rains. Curious Yi villagers in colorful headdresses watched at first in awe, but then quickly pitched to help by gathering flat stones to supplement the logs. After several last hairpin turns the jeep convoy stopped abruptly.
Before us was an elaborately painted Tibetan monastery with prayer flags flapping in the flawless Himalayan sky. A huge gate was slowly opened by young monks in maroon robes and we silently entered a courtyard surrounded by massive stone walls. Three elderly monks led by the hand by their young alcoylotes approached us. Mr. Su explained that we had traveled for several days and many thousands of miles to reach this special place. The head monk turned to me but said nothing. He then grasped both of my hands warmly. I could see tears welling in his compassionate eyes.
The sound of a conch shell horn broke the next morning’s silence. We were housed in the rough cells reserved for pilgrims visiting the monastery. In darkness we were ushered into the monastery’s ancient kitchen and served butter tea with barley flour by an elderly monk introduced to us as Chogyam. I idly translated the Chinese inscription on one of the large bronze cauldrons in the kitchen. It had been cast in the late Ming dynasty about 1640.
As Chogyam poured our butter tea I heard a younger monk refer to him as “Day Star”. When I inquired about the meaning, I was told that it was a nickname given him by his parents because he was born in the year of the “Day Star” – which Chogyam had since seen twice himself. I later determined that the Day Star was in fact a reference to Haley’s Comet which was so bright in 1834 it was visible during the day. Since Haley’s Comet only appears every 76 years and last appeared in 1986 this would make Chogyam 155 years old! When I asked to see him again to confirm this, I was politely informed he was unavailable and “attending to spiritual matters.”
After breakfast Mr. Su and a young monk carefully interviewed each expedition member and transliterated our names into the local Tibetan dialect. Later in the morning we were led solemnly into the main sanctuary of the monastery which subtlety vibrated as a chorus of about
30 monks chanted in unison in a low drone. The sanctuary was decorated with huge “thankas” or religious paintings, a life size gilt Buddha, and hundreds of butter lamps illuminating crimson support pillars. Some of the sounds seemed strangely familiar. Later we were to learn this ceremony was to invoke the god’s blessing on our journey. The familiar sounds were our names in Tibetan chanted to the gods for our individual safety.
We reluctantly left the monastery and later camped at the trailhead (at about 10,000’) above the Iron River Valley which flowed through central Muli. (The river is named for the large boulders of dense hematite stones forming the river bed). Snow began to fall as we set up our tents. I was exhausted by the roller coaster of events of the last few days. Was I dreaming?
I kept hearing the tinkling of bells and the soft scrunch of feet in the snow. Mr. Su thrust his hawk-like face in my tent and announced that the animals had arrived. An inspection of the animals revealed a menagerie of 35 horses, mules, and yaks festooned with ribbons, silver spurs, and richly woven Tibetan saddle carpets. The drivers were tall Khampa tribesmen (a warrior tribe from eastern Tibet) in fox skin hats, long knives tucked in their waist bands, and AK-47 rifles hung over their shoulders. The headman yelled at me “Chanadorje, Chanadorje!” I stood groggy and dumbfounded in the crisp morning air. He whirled me around roughly and screamed “Chanadorje” in my ear. I wiped the sleep from my eyes as the clouds slowly parted to reveal the icy blue summit of the mountain in the distance. Rock was right: the peak was indeed “peerless”.
It took forever to load the pack animals. Our Khampa herdsman were skillful but we had tons of gear – climbing gear, food, medical supplies for the villages we would visit and of course critical things like frisbees, Halloween masks, kazoos, and bubble blowing kits for the village kids. We descended the steep trail into the Iron River Valley passing through whole forests of pink, red, and purple rhododendrons (most of China’s more than 600 species of rhododendrons are found in this area).
Later we rested at a large Naxi watchtower on a cliff with a commanding view of the valley where we could detect other ancient towers up and down the valley. These impressive towers dated from the 10th Century A.D. and guarded the rich gold mines that belonged to the little known Nanchao Kingdom that once ruled South West China, Northern Burma and Laos.
We crossed the turbulent river on an ancient iron link suspension bridge with hundreds of prayer flags flapping in the warm 80° breeze. The Tibetans believe that as the flags vibrate the prayers printed on them are released into the ether. The valley was dry and oasis-like with islands of green fields around the villages that dotted the Shangri-La like valley. Crossing the swaying bridge we were greeted by several mounted Tibetans on the other side. They were heavily armed but smiling. I offered cigarettes and needles and thread as gifts. They puffed thankfully.
I asked about the rifles. “To protect our yaks and horses” came the reply.
“From what kind of animals?”
“Snow lions” and “horse bears,” they said, by which they meant snow leopards and the ferocious Chinese Brown Bear.
We headed up the valley passing ancient gold mine shafts, some with massive carved shoring timbers, reminiscent of “King Solomon’s mines.” We passed several Tibetans panning gold with “pans” made of bamboo frames covered with singed animal skins.
That night we camped by the river flanked by a black sand beach of gold-bearing sand. Ken, our expedition doctor, discovered a pile of human bones on the shore. Mr. Su said it was common for people to be swept away while fishing or panning for gold in the swift current.
Later a Mosu fisherman stealthily worked the opposite shore. He was clad only in a loin cloth as he expertly cast a hand woven throw net of vegetable fiber in the eddies and pools. We waived, but he paid us no notice.
The next morning under an azure sky we passed through our first large village which appeared deserted. Later we learned everyone was working in their fields high up the valley slopes. Only shy old women were left to tend the hearth and keep the large pigs in line. In the rafters of some of the houses were gigantic pig skins, curing – some six feet long! Later I learned these were sewn up, filled with salt and used as mattresses – and in times of famine as a source of food.
The trail was along an old Himalayan trade route. We passed yak caravans, some carrying smoked yak cheese, gold dust, musk and medicinal herbs (such as “chang huh , a liver detoxifier) to the lower elevations, while others were returning with trade items like pots and pans, Mao-style hats and shoes to sell in the high lands.
At twilight we passed through a large village intending to camp for the night on the other side. The houses were very substantial, three to four stories high with well-built stone walls and roofs with large timbers. The ground floor was typically a barn, the second floor, a great room with hearth and fire pit, the third floor, individual sleeping quarters and a small chapel and the fourth floor, a granary opening onto a flat roof for drying various food stuffs such as barley, corn, peppers, and walnuts.
From an open door a rosy – cheeked Tibetan matron motioned us in. Her hair was carefully plaited into 108 braids with turquoise, gold nuggets, silver, beads, and carnelian beads woven in. The 108 braids symbolized the chapters in the Kangyur – a sacred Tibetan text. We climbed a smoothly polished notched log to the second story great room. The fire pit smoldered with aromatic juniper branches. The hearth was decorated with wild flowers, a Chinese vase and a faded sepia tone picture of a bald and rotund figure in richly embroidered robes: “Is that the King of Muli?” I asked the matron.
“What happened to him?”
“He went away after the revolution.”
“Where did he go?”
“Oh, he’s around,” she replied cryptically.
My pesky questions were interrupted by the arrival of two young pigtailed girls – one with a large copper cauldron – the other juggling an odd assortment of cups, bowls, and saucers. The cauldron contained fermented corn of low alcohol content. It was delightfully refreshing. I looked around. This was not a poor farmer’s hut. It was more like a small castle with turrets on the top floor and a richly decorated great room. The pine walls were expertly carved and painted with pastoral scenes interspersed with elaborate cupboards and storage lockers brightly painted with Buddhist motifs.
We sat on intricately patterned sitting carpets on top of blue Tibetan sheeps’ skins. Engraved swords and daggers hung on the wall along with ancient muskets. I pulled out my old 1931 National Geographic and passed it around to our host’s family. Our hostess gasped, then giggled, as she recognized her mother as a young girl in one of the photos.
We drank late into the night. Our host was pleased and insisted we sleep right there in the great room next to the fire pit. He gave us his personal blessing and threw more aromatic juniper twigs on the dying fire as he retired upstairs.
The next day in light rain we turned off the main trail towards Ckhanadorje carefully passing chortens (stone shrines often housing religious relics) on our right, or lucky side, as is the Tibetan custom. The going was tough. We passed through a stand of lacquer trees and climbed higher into an old growth larch forest. Passing through a small clearing we came upon three pilgrims who were sitting eating a snack of walnuts, pears, and yak cheese spread on a scraggly bear skin. Su translated. The man, his wife, and his mother were circumambulating the three sacred peaks – about a 10 day journey. Most pilgrims made the journey during the rainy monsoon season (June, July and August) to gain greater merit from the gods for their added misery.
The man told Su of a nearby sacred spring reported to have youth-restoring powers. We trotted up the trail to an increasingly loud roar of rushing water. The “spring” turned out to be a gigantic three foot wide solid jet of water shooting straight out of a mossy limestone cliff! It had carved a narrow chasm below it that could be reached by a series of notched logs dripping in spray from the cataract.
Su and I descended slowly. He warned me to be careful of the “small dragons” that frequented these watery chambers. I thought he was joking. Only later, at the Chinese Academy of Science (Academia Sinica) in Beijing was I informed that this area was one of the last denizens of the aggressive Giant Chinese Salamander (Andrias davidianus) which grow to five feet in length and over 80 pounds!
We finally emerged from the forest into a series of ever higher tundra-like meadows with giant wild yaks grazing aggressively on the spotty vegetation. Domestic yaks are impressive enough but have interbred with domestic cattle and lost some of their imposing stature in the process. But these were magnificent beasts, snorting steam in the cool mountain air, five feet high at the shoulder, horns six feet wide, with their long hairy wool touching the ground like some prehistoric creature!
We set up base camp in freezing rain at the last of the meadows (at about 13,000’ feet) next to a solitary log hut inhabited by a toothless yak herder and his two comely teenage nieces. They welcomed us as guests in their meadow and presented us with a beautifully round ball of freshly churned yak butter.
The next day we lolled around base camp in the warm spring sunshine. The “A Team”, the climbers, were discussing possible routes on Ckhanadorje’s formidable west buttress. The “B Team”, the hardcore trekkers – revved up for a possible circumambulation of Chanadorje. The “C Team” – the “bon vivants” played frisbee with the Khampas and generally goofed off. As the nominal expedition leader (and “C Team” leader) I allocated base camp tasks to less than eager members. I joked that rank had its privileges and that I had saved the best task for myself. I then marched off to dig the base camp latrine.
The next days were spent by the individual teams in their chosen pursuits. The climbers reached the summit ridge to Ckhanadorje at about 20,000 feet, but were blocked by an impassable ice pinnacle and deteriorating weather. They settled for the first ascent of Zambala III (at about 18,000 feet), named auspiciously after the Tibetan god of wealth.
The trekkers tried their walk around Ckhanadorje, but ran out of time and passable trails. They were compensated by being “held hostage” for two days in a distant village where the locals plied them with firey liquor, and danced and sang nonstop until the wee hours clothed in ancient embroidered silk costumes normally stored in dry caves and only brought out for special occasions.
Meanwhile, the “bon vivants” staged a mime play for a group of children who had come to the meadow to help in the yak cheese making operation. We also had a frisbee throwing demonstration, but the Khampas upstaged us by playing frisbee on horseback!
I tried to act like a serious explorer – peering at plants, taking weather observations, and drawing a map of the area. But mostly I spent the days helping to make cheese with the toothless yak herder while Su translated my unending stream of questions about the local flora, fauna, history, legends and effect of the communist revolution on the traditional life style of the people of Muli (which I was happy to learn was negligible). In several days I filled a large notebook.
A week later, the three groups coalesced at base camp around a bon fire conversation which the Khampas kept interrupting by jumping their horses over our tents. We exchanged descriptions of our recent activities. The theme of the evening then turned to the individual motivations each of us had for coming to Muli. The reasons were as varied as the terrain we had covered.
One of the climbers, Tod, an unrepentant “mountain peak bagger”, had come at first to scale an unclimbed peak and to test himself. But he admitted that he had seriously considered forgetting the climb and just hanging out with the local people from whom he felt he had something to learn, which he couldn’t quite explain.
Sergio, one of the trekkers, was attracted to idea of being the first to trek in such a unique area with it varied ethnic groups and rare animals, especially the Lady Amherst’s Pheasant and golden monkey. He had spotted a herd of blue Tibetan sheep and the extremely rare rose finch that day at about 16,000 feet and was still elated.
Sybil, who I considered one of the “bon vivant,” didn’t really fit into any of my pigeon holes. She had come to explore the religious life of this remote outpost of Tibetan Buddhism and expand her own spiritual horizons. Sybil’s knowledge of Tibetan culture was phenomenal. Several days earlier, on a hike to the base of Jambeyang, (about 20,000 feet) she casually mentioned there were three other sacred peaks with exactly the same names 1000 miles away in Western Tibet near Mount Kailas, the most sacred of all Tibetan peaks (also sacred to Hindus and Jains).
Me? Well, I was haunted by the picture of the King of Muli in the 1931 National Geographic: A man who had been both a king and a god to his people, and later, after the Communist revolution, suffered an unknown fate. I wanted to interview him. Of course. tales of Naxi gold, secret ceremonies and sacred mountains rounded out my fascination.
The Khampas finally stopped howling like wolves as the embers of the camp fire died away and I drifted off to sleep in my tent dreaming of finding the king of Shangri-La in a remote mountain monastery.
The return hike up the Iron River Valley was uneventful except for the “yak parking fee.” As we left base camp, the toothless yak herder presented me with a crudely written bill on mulberry bark for “parking” our yaks in his meadow. I obliged by giving him my climbing boots and he threw in a few smoked yak cheeses as change. As we retraced our route through the villages in the valley we reexperienced the exceptional warmth and caring of the people who showered us with small gifts, but more importantly, their genuine concern over our safe return.
Sybil, Tod and I were hiking together and the last three to cross the ancient iron link bridge. On the near side a man greeted us in Tibetan and pressed a small bamboo tube wrapped in a prayer flag in each of our hands. He was the father of a child who had been helped by the medicine we had brought to one village. Muttering thank yous and bowing we walked to the center of the bridge as the man turned and waved good bye to us with a slow arcing wave.
I pried the rough wooden stopper from the slender tube and a small pile of gold dust and nuggets settled in my palm. Tod and Sybil did likewise. Tod’s pupils dilated and he began to babble excitedly about the cool ring he would have made with the larger nuggets. We both glanced over at Sybil and Tod gasped. Sybil was slowly sprinkling her gold dust on the swirling waters below. Tod yelled frantically to stop throwing away the “treasures of Shangri-La,” but Sybil only smiled and gestured up the valley toward the villages now glowing in the afternoon light. “The people are the treasures”, Sybil murmured softly to no one in particular.
I crossed the bridge and turned up the steep trail to the logging road and the long journey home. I glanced back at the river as the last of Sybil’s gold dust glittered in the water and then took one last look up the valley at the village nestled under the protective presence of a Chanadorje. Sybil was right: She had found her Shangri-La.