Shangri-la is a platitude most people know as meaning a place of long life and perfect happiness. In reality, it is a brutal and lovely land of high altitude mountains and raging rivers in far southwest China where the people live in relative poverty but are fortified by their rich culture.
British author James Hilton coined the phrase in a small novel "Lost Horizons" in 1933. He was no doubt shocked at the widespread repute the location of his fictional sacred utopian kingdom would achieve.
My wife, Claire, and I made our journey in search of Shangri-la on a tandem bicycle, the same one we have used for 40,000 miles of adventure since we pedaled away from our Dungeness home in May 1995. I wrote about that first yearlong journey in a Sequim Gazette column.
Did we find Shangri-la?
Well, fantasy and reality are not the same but in Asia reality always is fascinating and alive, always challenging and rewarding.
We encountered steep mountains to 16,000 feet, monsoon snows and extreme weight loss, became lost in a jungle and suffered the vagaries of Chinese Communist bureaucracy.
Travel with us to Shangri-la at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 17, at the Sequim High School cafeteria. All proceeds go to the Peninsula Trails Coalition for the Olympic Discovery Trail.
Below is our journal for our first day in Tibetan lands and first high pass:
Bob - Yesterday we rode Zippy (our tandem bicycle) to the highest elevation ever for us. We started at 8,500 feet in Kangding and topped Zheduo Pass at 13,900 feet in 35 kilometers, or 21.7 miles, all under construction/repair. For our Olympic Peninsula friends, that's like taking the Hurricane Ridge Road, raising the sea level start to 3,000 feet above the ridge and
loading 80 pounds on your tandem before beginning. Oh, I forgot, put 1,000 people and hundreds of trucks and equipment on the now gravel/dirt/broken concrete road.
We had some concerns about the rapid elevation gain from low Chengdu.
Near the pass, we were stopping for short rests every half kilometer or so, during extra steep sections. We had a little dizziness and mild headaches in the steeper sections. We topped out in a good mood although there were moments of despair along the way.
We dropped off into a beautiful Tibetan valley, unfortunately with only a few kilometers of newly paved road, and arrived in town much later than usual.
We are taking another acclimatization day, at about 11,000 feet. There are some higher passes to come. Today we took a walk through the village and enjoyed the Tibetans in their beautiful land.
Claire - I'm not sure which part was the most trying of the day; the construction was a nasty surprise, sometimes the route looked more like a mud track than a major highway. I asked directions more often than our Azeri taxi driver did on the run for the Georgian border on our Silk Road Crossing. Going up into the fog was pretty demoralizing but ultimately may have been better for us because we couldn't see how much farther up we had to go.
Overall, the worst part may have just been the unknown, but really, that's why we're here, isn't it? Dealing with whatever happens. We put ourselves here for just this type of experience and though it can feel harrowing at the time, the intensity of the day becomes a part of us.
In retrospect, yes it was hard, but for me, my resolve came from a continual mantra of: "We're doing it, we're still moving forward, we may be slow, but we're doing it." And both Bob and I kept good spirits and good strength the whole day through. We'll need that for the 7,000-foot climb to 15,000 feet soon.
Bob - I'm not surprised that Claire touched on what I intended to end with. I am sure some of you new to our travels are saying to yourselves, "What would possess them to put themselves through the things they do?" I'm pretty sure a lot of Chinese are saying that to us, we just can't understand them!
Here's a major part of the answer. Creating challenges for ourselves and facing them together strengthens the bond of our marriage. Couples often allow the romance to fade as the years progress. It's easy to become immersed in career, children, differing interests and circles of friends and to put the partner in a secondary position. We said some vows nearly 20 years ago and our habit of creating challenges for ourselves and meeting them as a team has helped us keep those vows and kept the romance alive. We may seem crazy, but the rewards of our mutual struggles are great.
Traveler's Journal - China
An evening with Bob and Claire Rogers as they describe travels in the high-altitude mountains of far southwest China
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 17
Where: Sequim High School cafeteria, 601 N. Sequim Ave.
Cost: $5 per person; children are free
Other showtime: 7 p.m., Sept. 19 at Port Angeles Senior Center (admission $5)