AFAR

HIGHER GROUND

I WAS SITTING IN THE one-room hut of a Tibetan nomad, a wizened old man I’d met while hiking through the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve, a protected wilderness in the far northwest of China’s Yunnan province. My lungs, already straining for breath at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, were choked by the smoky fire at the center of the room, and I was trying not to think about the five-mile climb back to the trailhead. The man gestured toward his two butter churns. He showed me a wood cabinet filled with rounds of yak butter that he made and sold to monasteries, where monks plunge their fingers into ice water before carving the blocks into elaborate lotus blossoms, chrysanthemums, images of Buddha. He offered me a cup of something thick, yellowish-white, and slightly chunky: milk, produced by his yaks, that he’d fermented for several days. I sipped. It was sour and fizzy and, admittedly, a little personally challenging. But it was like nothing I’d ever tasted, in this place that was like nowhere I’d ever been, with this person who was like no one I’d ever met. I drained my cup and thought: Welcome to paradise.

I would recall that moment often while driving through the “three parallel rivers” region, where the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rush down side by side from their headwaters, all within 55 miles of each other. My 10-day driving trip followed a centuries-old trade route through deep-cut gorges and over Himalayan mountains, from the ancient town of Lijiang to a city that in 2001 was rebranded “Shangri-La” by the. That may be true. Or not, since Hilton never actually set foot in China, though he did apparently consult the writings of Westerners who lived in this region. Still, that bureaucratic sleight of hand seemed apt. Visitors to China invariably bump up against the government’s Big Brother edicts—what you’re allowed to see and what you’re not, what is real and what is for show, what is tolerated and what is obliterated. Of course the country’s utopia, too, would be defined by decree. As I passed by farmlands dotted with Buddhist stupas, through towering forests, and along rivers running red with silt, my hope was to find something less scripted and more true: the bliss and grace of the unexpected.

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