Fall, 2010 Expedition to "Shangri-la"
By William McNamara, Executive Director
2001, with the goal of attracting more tourism, the Tibetan county of
Zhongdian in northwestern Yunnan officially changed its name to
Xianggelila, meant to refer to Shangri-La. Local officials claimed that
it was Zhongdian that Rock was writing about for National Geographic.
However, officials in Sichuan, the province just north of Yunnan, argued
that Rock was, in fact, describing remote regions of southern Sichuan.
They have pinpointed two areas for Shangri-La that Rock did indeed write
about and photograph in Sichuan, the small Tibet-an town of Muli and
the mysterious mountains of Konkaling. The Konkaling culminate in three
massive peaks that tower over the surrounding gentian-filled alpine
meadows and rich conifer forests. The highest of the three is Xiannairi
at 19,790 feet, with the other two, Yangmaiyong and Xiaru-oduoji, rising
to 19,547 feet.I
was fortunate to visit the Konkaling Mountains in fall of 1994 during
an expedition with Charles Howick, from the Howick Arboretum, and
Charles Erskine & Hans Fliegner from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Our guide from the Chinese Academy of Sciences called the mountains
"Little Gongga", after Sichuan's highest mountain Gongga Shan at 24,790
feet. We were told at the time that we were the first foreign botanists
to visit the area since Joseph Rock in 1929. Stunned by the magnificence
of the mountains and the diverse flora surrounding them, I was
determined to return one day. Sixteen years later, in October of 2010, I
was finally able to return. I was traveling with Andrew Bunting of the
Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, Andy Hill from the University of
British Columbia Botanical Garden, and Christophe Crock from the
Arboretum Wespelaar in Belgium.
Konkaling is now a nature
reserve and is called Yading. The small village of Riwa, where we had
camped in 1994, was now full of new Ti-betan style hotels built of
stone. It had also changed its name to Shangri-La Village. What had
taken us two days on horses before, to arrive at a scenic alpine meadow
at the base of the highest of three peaks, was now possible in a 15
minute drive. A new road had been cut into the sides of the steep
mountains to take hordes of tourists to a hotel complex for shopping and
casual strolls for photo opportunities. Saddened by all the
development, I was still pleased to know that the surrounding
mountainsides were now protected.
the long journey there and back we managed to make several important
collections for Quarryhill, in particular oaks, maples, rhododendrons,
and arisaemas. The travel was difficult as the roads were some
of the worst that I have seen due to heavy summer rains, and the leeches
were far too numerous. We also had to cross several very high passes,
some well over 15,000 feet. However, I was especially pleased to find Lyonia ovatifolia, a delicate shrub with white bell flowers, Rhododendron rex, a large-leaved species with beautiful light pink flowers, and Piptanthus nepalensis, a curious legume with yellow flowers. We had hoped to collect seed of Magnolia wilsonii, Magnolia sargentiana, and Magnolia dawsoniana, but despite finding all three species, all were without seed. We also searched in vain for new populations of Acer pentaphyllum
in Muli county. On our return we stopped at the three known populations
of this rare maple in Yajiang, Kangding, and Jiulong counties. To our
surprise and delight a large sign had been posted along the road at the
Yajiang population declaring that the maple was protected. Some of the
trees between the road and the river had been fenced off presumably to
deter the gathering of firewood. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags lined the
top of the fence.
Although the existence of all three populations is
still threatened, it was good to see that the Chinese had begun to take
notice. Unfortunately, the plans to build dams that will sub-merge the
maples have not changed.
Having seen the three sites in China
claiming to be Shangri-La, I'm not sure the Chinese have found it. If
the purpose of Shangri-La is to attract tourist dollars, then certainly
Zhong-dian and Yading could claim the name. Few tourists have yet found
their way to Muli. But if Shangri-La is meant to be a secret place of
great beauty, peace and harmony, none of the three measure up. Some say
that Shambhala or Shangri-La can only be found by the enlightened or
that it only exists in our imagination. Sometimes during my strolls
through Quarryhill I think I have glimpses of Shangri-La. And I keep
hearing from visitors that Quarryhill may soon no longer be the best
kept secret in Sonoma Valley.