A journey to Shangri-La

The Enterprise — Mike Nardacci

An outcrop of tilted bedrock shows the ongoing tectonic interaction of the Indian subcontinent with China.

For those of us “of a certain age,” our images of China probably derive from the late 1960s and early 1970s:  scenes of grim-looking Beijing with thousands of stern-faced, androgynous-looking Red Guards marching, chanting, and waving Chairman Mao’s little Red Book, the images looking even grimmer for having been shot in black-and-white.

But the Chairman’s call for China to be in a state of “permanent revolution” has come full circle: Most modern Chinese find the whole Mao era to be at least an embarrassment if not a collection of horrible memories.

China has become a market economy and tourist guides talk openly of Mao’s atrocities; they tell of swirling rumors that his mummified body will be removed from exhibit in Tiananmen Square, and that his gigantic mausoleum that Ramses II might have envied will be torn down.

The Chinese people dress fashionably, markets in the big cities are overflowing with food and consumer goods, and private businesses are exploding. China still has many problems, among them serious air pollution and a government that permits a certain amount of economic freedom but far less political freedom.

But visitors to China cannot help but be aware that the winds of change are blowing as surely as those that sometimes carry thick clouds of dust from the Gobi desert over Beijing. And they become aware quickly of something else, too: China is an awesomely beautiful country.

I recently returned from a trip that took some friends and me to China, and our travels will be the subject of this and future “Back Roads Geology” columns. Our itinerary took us to Cambodia as well, and might easily be described in such clichéd terms as “eye opening” and “life-changing” — but in this case the clichés are true and they are not hyperbole.

Vast country

The world seems a much bigger and more fascinating place to anyone who has seen China. It is a vast country, with landscapes as diverse and spectacular as any in the United States.

Its high mountains result from the ancient collision of the Indian subcontinent with Southeast Asia, and exposures of distorted bedrock and China’s sometimes catastrophic earthquakes indicate that the collision is ongoing.  Elsewhere are more lofty mountains and wilderness, the lair of the giant panda, and to the west lie the Gobi Desert and occupied Tibet and the Himalayas.

And much of China is karst terrain: thick limestone bedrock in which the agents of weathering and erosion in the humid stretches of China have carved out craggy pinnacles, hollowed out caves, pockmarked the surface with giant sinkholes, and formed gushing springs.

The great Yangtze River flows down from the Himalayas through some of the most stunning scenery in China, in particular the legendary stretch known as the Three Gorges where millions of years of river erosion have carved out a spectacle to rival — and in stretches exceed — our own Grand Canyon.

Downstream is the eponymous Three Gorges Dam — a technological wonder of the world but also a source of great controversy.  While it has allowed the production of enormous amounts of electrical energy, it has also raised the river’s water level over a hundred feet, displacing 1.3 million Chinese and in the process flooding towns and archeological sites and causing much ecological change.

One thinks of the similar effects of the Egyptian High Dam at Aswan, the building of dams by the TVA — and the loss of villages and farmland behind the dam at New York’s Great Sacandaga Lake.  Nonetheless — the stretches of the river from Chongoing (familiarly known as “Chun-king”) down to the dam itself have become prime areas for the visitor to China — and a few hours on a cruise ship through the region demonstrate why.

Even before reaching the magnificent vistas of the Three Gorges themselves, the scenery is evocative — one might accurately describe it as mystical.  Though the landscape exhibits enormous pinnacles and buttes, as in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the climate here is very humid and the walls of the gorge are thick with vegetation.

The Yangtze is brown as the Mississippi, partly due to the heavy sediment load it bares from locations as far away as the high Himalayas, and partly due to effluent from riverside villages and sediment from mines drowned as the water rose behind the great dam.  The river cuts steeply through verdant hills and mountains dotted with small villages — some reachable only by boat — and temples and pagodas from China’s past, often situated on slopes that are so steep as to appear inaccessible.

A land out of legend

The beautiful Shibaozhai Taoist pagoda rises surrounded by lush gardens near the peak of a precipitous limestone promontory reachable only by a hike up a steep incline and a harrowing traverse of a swaying suspended bridge.  The wooden structure was built over 400 years ago, 12 levels tall and constructed without a single nail.



The Enterprise — Mike Nardacci
The 400-year-old Shibaozhai Taoist Pagoda is a wooden structure built without a single nail.


Inside it are narrow, twisting passages and shadowy alcoves, within which reside over-life-sized statues of Taoist deities and heroes. Their presence is disorienting, but in a pleasing way — telling visitors that they have entered a world parallel to their own but governed by unfamiliar figures.

That the pagoda and so many other relics of China’s past survived the barbarity of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is often a tribute to the wisdom of numerous local officials and citizens; alerted to the destructive intentions of the Red Guards, the locals papered the walls of many pagodas, temples, and other ancient relics with posters of Chairman Mao.  This made the structures sacrosanct and untouchable by the mindless mobs.


The Enterprise — Mike Nardacci
Bigger-than-life statues of figures from Taoist lore sit in the Shibaozhai Taoist pagoda.


This is a land out of legend. The channel of the river becomes narrow, and the buttes and pinnacles become higher and more precipitous.  Waterfalls burst from hidden caves and gush down steep, narrow passes, not unlike those in the Hawai’ian islands, showing as many shades of green as it is said that a true Irishman can distinguish.

Soon our cruise ship docks and we disembark at a confluence where a narrow tributary called the Shennv Stream joins the river, and, like the Yangtze, the Shennv flows brown with suspended sediment from the high terrain above it.

Here we shuffle into small, elegant boats, painted in the traditional colors of red and gold. The boats are motorized but surprisingly quiet as they glide upstream — as are we, its passengers — for we glide into a stunning landscape of steep green slopes, reaching upward to sheer faces of limestone rock.

Springs burst from the dense forests and here and there an ancient rock staircase ascends from the river shore and vanishes mysteriously into the dense growth high above. A cloudburst a few hours before has fed a number of waterfalls that resolve into fine spray before they reach the river shore.

The high peaks of the Shennv valley are draped in low-lying clouds and before us is the inspiration for thousands of Chinese scroll paintings, depicting mystical landscapes in which human constructions disappear into the drifting fog.


The Enterprise — Mike Nardacci
Small boats are used to navigate the waters of the Shennv Stream, a tributary to the Yangtze.


The evocation of the hidden valley of Shangri-la in James Hilton’s romance “Lost Horizon” is inevitable.  Here in the valley of the Shennv is a world green beyond belief, appearing untouched by any human presence, far removed from the noise, the pollution, and the human turmoil of the world outside

Through centuries of Chinese history in which ruthless dictators and benevolent despots built their fortresses and walls and fomented revolutions and waged wars, the Shennv has flowed beneath towers of ancient rocks and dense forests of trees that seem never to have known an ax.

But soon it is time for our quietly moving tour boat to return us to our cruise ship on the Yangtze, time to return to a world of schedules and obligations and technology. And, in the days and weeks that follow, we are left to ponder: Did we, or anyone, really enter — if ever so briefly — that hidden, primeval valley?

And yet, in our thoughts remain those mysterious, mossy staircases, rising from the rocky banks of the Shennv and vanishing into the misty wilderness above.