Quarryhill Botanical Garden

Advancing the Conservation, Study, and Cultivation of the Flora of Asia

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Fall, 2010 to China - In Search of Shangri-La

Fall, 2010 Expedition to "Shangri-la"

By William McNamara, Executive Director

In 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.

During 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.River.gif