As it was, Claire and I didn’t get sick. We took Chinese medicine made from the roots of an Arctic shrub for the duration of our journey along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and at elevations of 4,000 metres and above we felt short of breath but otherwise well. The roads were dirt tracks for long stretches, and where they were being worked on there were long delays and detours and billowing dust. In places they were so narrow that looking out from my window in a claustrophobic miànbāochē I saw nothing but ravines at the bottom of yawning, hundred-metre-long drops, but Tibetan-owned guest houses and restaurants serving Sichuan’s málà cuisine made it easy to forget my aches and apprehensions at the end of each day. We ate lunch with nomads in the hills around Shangri-La and drank beer with migrant workers in Xiangcheng, where the government was putting down a strike. We were disappointed by dirty hotsprings and tourists flocking like vultures to sky burials in Litang, and it wasn’t until we made our way on foot to a monastery near Tagong that we felt like our journey was in some way complete. Its gold roof glinted far in the distance at the foot of a single, snow-capped peak and to reach it we’d passed carefully through an icy river and herds of temperamental yaks. It was in making my way to the monastery that I prepared myself to arrive for a few moments at Shangri-La, which in the words of the Dalai Lama “is not a physical place that we can actually find,” but exists only in our minds.
August 30, 2012