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I’m still not convinced that the original Shangri-La is a place that only exists in fiction, said Scott Wallace in National Geographic Traveler. The 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon described it as a valley in southwest China where enlightenment and longevity reign. But just two years before, my own grandfather had written to The New York Times claiming to have discovered in the same region a “lost tribe” whose members lived in harmony and drank from a fountain of youth. My grandfather disappeared not long after filing that report, so when I decided recently to visit the area that so enthralled him, I figured I had only one chance of finding him still alive: by locating his Shangri-La.
My itinerary took me “into one of China’s wildest landscapes”—a national park where the Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze rivers “thunder off the Tibetan Plateau” and “cut through mountains as they funnel into gorges twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.” A company named Songtsam has dotted the area with five lodges and provides guides for traveling between them. At the first, “I felt I’d stepped into Hilton’s novel the moment I entered” because the scent of incense filled the air as I was handed a cup of ginger tea. Isolated ancient cultures endured in these mountains well into the 1930s, but time hasn’t since stood still. On the road the next day, we passed old women “stooped under loads of hay,” but many nearby fields were studded with boxy new homes.
If Shangri-La really did exist, the Meili Mountains would be a picture-perfect place to hide it. Waking one morning in the lodge nearby, we looked out on five colossal snow-covered peaks, including Kawagebo, a towering, almost-perfect cone that Tibetan Buddhists consider sacred. The rest of my journey would take me south toward larger towns, so this was my last chance to imagine that the utopia my forebear claimed to have found might lie just a valley away. The road out took us past 13 ceremonial towers, or stupas, and we stopped at one to placate Kawagebo with offerings. As I slid my pine boughs into a ceremonial oven, I said a prayer for my grandfather, hoping he’d found the inner peace he was looking for all those years ago.
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A double at Songtsam Lodges (songtsam.com/lodges) costs $125 a night.
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