Konkaling - One Man's Shangri-la
by Yuan Li
Published in Asian Geographic, 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

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 interaction
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

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.