Konkaling - One Man's Shangri-la  

Text and Photographs by Yuan Li  


Konkaling - One Man's Shangri-la
Text and Photographs by Yuan Li

Asian Geographic,(AG) Sept. - Nov. 2000

"Where in all the world is to he found scenery comparable to that which awaits the explorer and photographer in north-western Yunnan Province, China and in the mountain fastnesses of Tsarung, in south-eastern Tibet?"

So wrote Dr. Joseph E Rock in 1928, beginning his series of reports published in National Geographic magazine. Dr. Rock was, at that time, the leader of the National Geographic Society's Expedition in Yunnan Province, China. Best known for the 493 species of rhododendron brought back to the United States, the expedition also collected numerous other specimens including "some 60,000 sheets of plants, about 1,600 birds, and 60 mammals".

Although Rock's expedition had its base in Lijiang, Yunnan, his exploration covered a vast area where the Indian sub-continental plate collides with the Asian plate and the Tibetan plateau slopes toward the Sichuan basin. Here, hidden among a maze of peaks and hemmed in by mighty walls are the headwaters of rivers as diverse as the Yangtze, Mekong, Salwin and lrrawaddy.

The Yangtze runs into the East China Sea north of Shanghai. The Mekong flows along the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, across Cambodia into southern Vietnam where it finally empties into the South China Sea. The Salwin and lrrawaddy empty into the Indian Ocean off Myanmar. At their heads, however, these rivers run parallel to each other, with a total separation of less than 160 kilometres between them, and cut out a rugged terrain which has been largely inaccessible to outsiders until recent years.

One of the places to which Dr. Rock ventured was Konkaling, "an enormous mountain mass, only second in height to Minya Konka and the Amnyi Machen". In 1931 he wrote an article titled, "Konkaling - Holy Mountain of the Outlaws" in which he explained that "Konkaling, meaning 'Snow Mountain Monastery', houses 400 monks always alert to rob, going out periodically on plundering expeditions, then returning to prayers". He pro- claimed the scenery there as "unsurpassed" but lamented the fact that the land remained "closed to the outside world". His request of a return visit was denied by the leader of the outlaws because, as Dr. Rock reported, "shortly after our last trip around the peaks, the wrath of the deities was aroused and hailstones descended in such size and quantity as to destroy the entire barley crop".

Sixty years after Rock's explorations the region once again caught public attention when a group of American botanists, who were familiar with Rock's expedition, asked permission from the Chinese government to visit the area. The outlaw monks had long left, but remote Konkaling, now a part of Daocheng County in the south-western part of Sichuan, had remained largely unknown to many Chinese and most outsiders. Prompted by the visit, members of Academia Sinica, who accompanied the American visitors, and local government officials, argued the importance of the area for eco-tourism to preserve its natural state while serving as a means to derive income for the population. Since then, the area has gained popularity among Chinese photographers and adventurous travellers. In 1999 it registered close to 5,000 visitors, a few from as far away as Holland and the United States. This year over 10,000 visitors have already been reported.

Although surrounded by mountain ranges with lofty peaks exceeding 6,000 metres, Daocheng, at a latitude around 28 degrees north, has a pleasant climate. It covers an area of approximately 4,800 square kilometres. It has a population, predominantly Kangba (an ethnic minority related to Tibetan), of less than 30,000. Even today, its only access to the outside world is through a gravel road which branches off a secondary highway connecting the Sichuan-Tibet highway with Yunnan.

What Dr. Rock called "Konkaling territory" is located in the central region of Daocheng, approximately 90 kilometres from the county seat. It is now set aside as a natural reserve. This area is even less accessible than Daocheng itself. Until 1999 there was no road to get there directly. One had to travel on a bumpy road for three hours to a village, and, then ride on horseback for another six hours. (Out here, distance is seldom measured in kilometres but in hours, a more reliable measurement.)

Covered by firs, spruce, and larch, the region is dominated by three peaks all reaching of approximately 6,000 metres. The fifth Dalai Lama visited here in the 17th century and bestowed the honour that these three peaks, named Shennairi, Jambeyong, and Chanadorje by the local Tibetans, were the transformation of the Tibetan Buddhist trinity. Tibetan Buddhist devotees make pilgrimages here and remain the main group of visitors. There are no permanent residents in Konkaling apart from shepherds from surrounding villages, who occasionally pass through the area, and a handful of lamas in Tsengu Gomba, a run-down lamasery that once housed Dr. Rock in the shadow of the snowy peaks.

During my first visit tot Konkaling in October 1996 I was led on horseback by a groom who also served as the local guide. The trail followed a gorge formed by a white-water brook and was precarious. A slip would have meant tumbling more than l00 metres down the steep slope. But the atmosphere was casual. It had the intimacy of a pleasant outing instead of the feeling of hardship of an expedition. Aside from the sound of gushing water, only the high note of the groom's singing pierced the air, which was scented by the odd mixture of spruce and the grassy smell of fresh horse manure.

The crisp weather had turned the hillside, covered, primarily by spruce and larch, a predominantly golden colour. As the trail ascended and reached deep into the forest, we were in a ravine surrounded by crags. Shielded from the sun, ghostly moss swayed in the chilling breeze and made me shudder. Then, unexpectedly, we reached a pass and a broad valley unfolded. A pale-green brook snaked toward a blanket of gold, green, and red which ended with a ring of gray mountain ranges, dotted with snow-capped peaks, rising sharply against a brilliant blue sky. The only man-made stone structure, nestled under the shadow of Shennairi peak, was the Tsengu Gomba lamasery, where we would spend the night.

The air was cool and the moon was bright. Standing in front of the lamasery I felt that I could almost touch the snowy peak which Rock described as resembling "a huge white throne, such as Living Buddhas use when meditating - a worthy seat for a Tibetan deity!" Faintly, at a distance, the illumination of lights came from a village below. I could not help but think about James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933) in which four travellers discover the idyllic and peaceful world of Shangri-la in the Himalayas.

Did Dr. Rock's report inspire Hilton in his description of the lamasery beyond which, "in a dazzling pyramid, soared the snow peaks of Karakal"? In Hilton's story the hero, Hugh Conway, upon his arrival to Shangri-la, "could see the outline of a long valley. But it was to the head of the valley that his eyes were led irresistibly. Then, a tiny puff clouded the edge of the pyramid". The description fit unmistakably as I looked toward Chanadorje peak." Both Chanadorje and Jambeyang resemble pyramids.

In Hilton's story, when Conway left Bangkok for the north-west in his return journey to Shangri-la, did he head toward Tibet, as many readers interpreted? Could Shangri-la more likely be near the source of the Mekong River, described in Dr. Rock's report than somewhere beyond Kuen-Luns in Tibet which would be more accessible through India? I wondered.

>From the fifth century Chinese writing of Tao Yuanming in The Source of Peach Blossom River, to Hilton's Lost Horizon, people have longed to find their Shangri-la. Of course, Shangri-la is more a state of mind than a real place,there is no need to argue about its exact location. Gazing down this magnificent valley, I seem to have found mine.

>From a botanist's point of view, what makes the area unique, I was told, is the forest of larch which reaches to the edge of the timberline, where a sharp rise to the peaks sends glaciers down the cliffs like waterfalls. Many species of rhododendron form the undergrowth of the forest. The vegetation on the valley floor merges discernibly yet also seamlessly with the mountain range ringing the valley.

But what really captured my imagination was the dynamic interplay of the natural elements. At an average altitude of 3,500 metres, but shielded, by the mountain range, the valley has a climate which is pleasant but ever-changing. Here the vista is magnificent and the hills are literally alive, not with a song but with a rhythm derived from the inter-action between heaven and earth. Like flowers and bees, the peaks attract and disperse clouds seemingly at will. Clouds gather near the peaks only to be blown away by the mountain air. The forest cover, full of vigour with its colours, is seldom under uniform and constant light. As the ever-changing pattern of shadows moves across the valley floor, it creates an illusion of waves pounding upon cliffs. The cliff waits are etched and coloured by the glacier falIs. Where the forest cover meets the mountain range, remnants of mudslides and avalanches are everywhere. The mud buries and simultaneously offers nutrients to the vegetation. Nothing seems to escape the watchful but benign eye of heaven. And everything falls into its place. Up on a peak, the prayer flags flutter in the setting sun. The sign of human presence is not meant to conquer but only to embrace.

When Dr. Rock was here he was simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by the place. While he repeatedly expressed his satisfaction that he was "on unknown ground, never before trodden by the foot of white man", he was in a region "of amazing scenery and pious robbers, who turn from pillage to prayer - and then back to pillage!" Disagreeable elements seemed to mar "a garden fit for gods". Although the area might still seem primitive to some, no such frustrations are warranted today.

Soaking myself in the hot spring at the edge of the town, the vision of a Shangri-la was complete. The water was clear and odourless. Where the hot spring flowed down as a stream, folks from the nearby village gathered to wash, everything from clothing to yak hide. On the roofs of stone houses nearby, harvested golden stalks of highland barley glistened in the sun. A Tibetan pop song, which l had heard for the first time in a karaoke nightspot in town, suddenly rang in my ear: "There is no hardship. There is no sorrow. The place is known as Shangbala" (from which, I assume, the word Shangri-la was derived). Did the song come to my ear or from my mind? I was spellbound.

Since that first visit in 1996, I have visited the area three times. Each time, I have felt closer to it, yet I find the place simultaneously reassuring and transitory. The number of visitors whom I encounter with each visit has been increasing steadily. In my most recent visit in October 1999, large tents had appeared on the edge of the meandering brook to accommodate the ever-increasing number of visitors. Is there such a place called Shangbala? Can such a place survive even if it did once exist? I wonder.


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