Near Muli, Sichuan Province, ChinaWe are walking to Muli.
What is Muli?
The question is tricky.
In simplest terms, Muli is a latitude and longitude: an obscure waypoint on the Silk Roads that once unspooled, like chalky strings, across the river chasms and wind-stripped passes of Sichuan, in far southwestern China. Muli is also a 16th-century monastic center. It shelters more than a hundred monks who subscribe to the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Its gilded temple, painted with dragons and bodhisattvas, hangs from the sheer canyon above the Litang River. Until the Communist victory in 1949, Muli was also the seat of a small, independent kingdom ruled by shrewd landlord-lamas. For centuries, its surrounding wall of 16,000-foot peaks, ablaze with snow, held the wider world at bay. Few outsiders visit Muli even today.
Yet there is another Muli. One that doesn’t appear on maps.
This Muli of the imagination occupies the same hazy terrain as the chivalric romances of the Amadís of Gaul, of Xanadu, of El Dorado, of Never-Never Land. Indeed, the fictional dreamland of Shangri-La—a quasi-Tibetan utopia popularized in James Hilton’s 1930s novel Lost Horizon—was likely inspired by the real Muli. In this way, Muli dissolves, becomes an interior destination: a reverie spawned, say, during the course of a long foot journey. I am walking across the world. I have been inching toward Muli for many years.
There are four of us.
Liu Kankan is a book editor. She hoists a rucksack weighted with a heavy laptop. Photographer Zhang Hongyi lags behind shooting wild mushrooms and sunrays. Sonam Gelek, an ethnic Tibetan mountaineer, scouts the serried passes ahead.
We set out from the frontier town of Yongning. The sidewalks are littered with broken roof tiles from one of Yunnan’s serial earthquakes.
An old track lay across blue-green forests of pine and spruce that drape the rumpled Sichuan border. The trees drip golden sap from ax blazes: the work of turpentine harvesters. Rusty pine needles blanket wide trails that for generations guided tea and horse caravans between Tibet and Southeast Asia. We pinball down sudden valleys where ethnic Naxi, Mosuo, Yi, and Khampa Tibetan farmers hand-sow wheat. Watermills churn in creeks. Beehives cut from hollowed-out logs look like drums. Yak herders in rakish, side-buttoned tunics lean on their sticks and grin as we pass. They report bear encounters. We meet no other humans.
Four days out, we climb Wachang Pass, elevation 13,100 feet. A village guide with the legs of an Olympian points to tiny structures on a dun scarp one vertical mile below.
“Muli,” he says in triumph.
But it hardly matters.
My lungs heave. They clutch at frozen air. I squint past ice-frosted prayer flags clapping in razored winds. At ranks of sunlit peaks stretching to infinity. At a cosmos of nitrogen-blue sky. A world of rhododendron forests. Of log cabins and saddle leather. Of Sichuan pepper orchards. Another China. Raw and half-wild. Invisible to most outsiders. Unrecognizable even to many Chinese. I feel the Hengduan Mountains opening up as landscapes sometimes do, only once, when you first step into them.
We stand in the idea of Muli already.
The explorer who brought unearthly Muli to popular attention called the lamasery “one of the least-known spots in the world” and “a weird fairyland.”
Yet Joseph Rock is himself unknowable. And not a little weird.
Born in 1884 the son of an Austrian butler, Josef Franz Karl Rock fled a dismal childhood in Europe to ship out as a teenager for far-flung ports. Eventually, he washed up in the Hawaiian islands. With no formal training and only secondary schooling, he reinvented himself there as the state’s foremost botanist. Like many self-taught savants, Rock’s curiosity was obsessive. By his early 20s, he’d learned six languages including Chinese. In 1920, after gaining U.S. citizenship, he was chosen by the Department of Agriculture to search East Asia for botanical treatments for leprosy and blight-resistant chestnut trees. He never truly returned.
Rock made his Chinese headquarters in a stone hut at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a blue, 18,300-foot pyramid in Yunnan Province that marks the eastern limit of the Himalayas. Over three workaholic decades, he collected tens of thousands of plants, took hundreds of glass-plate photographs, and trapped countless animal and bird specimens. He called himself a “peaceful botanist,” yet he never wrote a single scientific paper on Chinese plants. Instead, he became engrossed in the lives of the Tibeto-Burman minorities of China’s southwest frontier—the shamanistic Naxi farmers in particular—and devoted himself to meticulously recording their fading lifeways. At camp, he blasted out barrages of letters venting an abecedarium of lively bigotries:
On “filthy” Chinese cities: “I hate the idea of approaching Chengtu [the capital of Sichuan] and shall be happy when I shall strike the snow mountains where dwell the real children of nature and where fortunately the Chinese fear to go.”
On the degeneracy of the modern world: “It is after all a wonderful life, a free life out in the open among the mountains, fields and flowers and singing birds. How much more of the real life than that which people of New York live in their tenements, even the rich I do not envy them in their artificial existence . . . I dread the idea of returning to the so-called civilized world.”
On Western missionaries: “The ‘Holy Rollers’. . . were without any education, couldn’t compose a letter, but the Lord had called them from their alma maters, the dumpcarts, to convert the heathen.”
On rival scholars: A British botanist in Yunnan was so lazy, “he even had a man to walk his dog for him.”
"Rock is one of the world's finest photographers and is a resourceful explorer and geographer,” said an editor tasked with untangling Rock’s knotty prose in the journal of his new sponsor, the National Geographic Society. “At the same time, he is one of the most cantankerous of humans."
Riding a palanquin carried by four porters—Rock was not thin—the explorer toured the alpine trails of modern-day Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet like an imperial governor. He fancied silk robes trimmed with leopard fur. He slept in pricey Abercrombie & Fitch tents. His baggage trains, sometimes dozens of mules long, included fine silverware, a rubber bathtub, and a phonograph that played Enrico Caruso. Rock photographed a village crowd dazed by the tenor’s Celeste Aida.) To frighten off Tibetan bandits he fired his Colt .45 revolver skyward at sunset. His journals sometimes rang with loneliness. He never married.
“Some people have a good opinion of him, others don’t,” says Li Jin Hua, a grey-headed tour guide in Yuhu, Yunnan, the ethnic Naxi hamlet where Rock based himself for years, always eating his Western-style dinners alone off gold dinner service. “But all of us agree that Rock helped preserve our culture.”
Li’s village museum, housed in Rock’s old farmstead, contains a first edition of the explorer’s anthropological masterpiece, a thousand-page dictionary of the Naxi’s unique ideogrammatic language. The museum displays a “Saber Used by Rock’s Bodyguard.” It features a “Solar Helmet Used By Joseph Rock.” And under glass, it showcases an original (April 1925 issue of National Geographic magazine opened to an article: “The Land of the Yellow Lama: National Geographic Society Explorer Visits the Strange Kingdom of Muli, Beyond the Likiang Snow Range of Yunnan Province, China.”
We descend to Muli temple under the cold rays of a wild, white sun.
The Buddhist monastery was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in the 1980s. It buzzes in mid-festival. Scores of monks celebrate the death and reincarnation, six centuries past, of the sect’s founder, Tsong-kha-pa. Barrels of oranges and sweetened tsampa, roasted barley flour, await pilgrims at the castle-size wooden doors. Lamas in red togas emerge at dawn to blow through 12-foot-long copper horns: a moan to wake mountains. Masked monks dance under a ceramic blue sky, impersonating protective demons. Apart from electricity and the $400 Big Baller basketball shoes worn by younger acolytes, the unearthly ambience of Muli seems hardly changed since Rock wandered through.
“The king urged me to partake of Muli delicacies,” Rock wrote of his first encounter with the monk-warlord who ruled the mountain redoubt in 1924. “On a golden plate was what I thought to be, forgetting where I was, Turkish delight, but it proved to be ancient, mottled yak cheese, interspersed with hair.”
Muli’s xenophobic ruler was a six-foot-two goliath whom Rock called Chote Chaba. He had a passive baby face and “soft muscles . . . as he neither exercises nor works.” The king asked Rock if he could ride a horse from Muli to Washington, and whether the explorer’s binoculars could see through mountains. Rock presented the king with a modern rifle and 250 rounds of ammunition—an apt gift for a feudal autocrat who chained indentured peasants inside dungeons and wielded his own army.
Muli bewitched Rock.
Perhaps the low-born butler’s son saw the secluded kingdom as a storybook version of medieval Europe, where his status was lofted onto a nobleman’s saddle.
Rock reviewed parades of spear-toting Muli troops. They wore crimson coats and shouldered muskets from a previous century. Their horse halters shined with gold filigree. Rock climbed a ladder to photograph Muli’s 50-foot-tall bronze Buddha. (The giant effigy vanished in the turmoil of the Communist revolution.) He collected plants in the surrounding Hengduan Mountains, a “vast sea of ranges, pink and yellow, with black slopes indicating fir forest.”
“I heard about Luòkè when I was very young, but nobody knew he was important,” says Da Xi Jia Cuo, 81, a retired Tibetan monk at Muli, using the Mandarin name for Rock.
Old Da hunches in blue dungarees over a white cup of lichen tea. In his kitchen curls a large cat, warming itself atop a cast iron stove. Yak butter lamps burn at a small shrine honoring bodhisattvas and a porcelain bust of Mao. Outside the cabin window gapes the Litang River gorge cupping an ocean of silence. It’s rippled only by the hoarse calls of crows.
“Some people believed,” says Da, “that Luòkè brought special instruments to hunt for hidden treasure.” As if those were the true riches of Muli.
We walk on.
Guide Sonam Gelek veers up canyons that belong in national parks. We walk north under groves of birches with pale branches that tangle like basketry against a blue, blue sky. We circle Buddhist stupas clockwise, so our GPS tracks resemble dance diagrams.
The Yalong River glows green as oxidized brass. Its 4,000-foot canyon was the invisible boundary of the former Muli kingdom. Today, the entire region has been designated a Tibetan autonomous county in Sichuan Province. It sprawls over more than 5,000 square miles of sharp mountains—an area larger than Lebanon—sprinkled with barely 125,000 human souls.
One is Su Kaichun.
A member of the Yi ethnic group, Su is mayor of Sanyanlong, a village set in a Swiss alpine landscape that Rock traversed in 1929 on another expedition to Muli. Su is a friendly man, a folklorist and novice mystic. In a stone shepherd’s house at 12,000 feet, he chants himself into a trance. He grabs a poker from the cookfire and placidly strokes the red-hot metal with his fingers. He shows no pain. A century ago, using a hand-wound camera, Rock filmed similar esoteric practices among the animistic Naxi healers of Yunnan. One shaman, in a frenzy, licked an iron plow reddened in a bonfire.
“The hissing sound produced by the contact of his tongue with the hot ploughshare being distinctly audible,” Rock wrote, finally impressed.
“Even I can do this,” Su says. “My grandfather taught me. You must learn these things late at night, around 2 or 3 a.m., before the morning birds start singing.”
Joseph Rock left China forever in 1949.
Civil war between nationalists and communists locked the door to Muli. The era of feudal kingdoms in China was over. But premonitions of other endings had been haunting Rock’s journals for years.
“Choni looked quiet and forlorn in its winter garment,” the weary explorer wrote gloomily of a snowed-in lamasery in Gansu province, “and reminded one of the evening of my life which is fast approaching.”
And: “I want to die among those beautiful mountains rather than in a bleak hospital bed all alone."
Rock did die alone, though, in 1962, of heart attack in Honolulu. No family attended the explorer’s funeral. A short obituary in the New York Times cited his pioneering ethnology of China’s mountain borderlands and his introduction of 700 species of rhododendrons to the world.
And what of Rock’s foil? The hulking lord of Muli? After all, Rock’s story of Muli is—if nothing else—the tale of two worlds meeting.
Chote Chaba’s real name was Xiang Cicheng Zhaba. An heir to the elite Bar clan that governed Muli’s rugged nook of southwestern Sichuan for centuries, he was anything but Rock’s cartoon of a bumpkin “native king.” Muli thrived as an independent statelet because its lama-generals were deft frontier diplomats. For generations, they balanced the competing demands of China’s imperial Qing Dynasty with rival powers in Tibet and Yunnan: “[Muli] provided troops to the side it felt it could least afford to refuse,” one admiring historian notes wryly. Xiang’s luck only ran out in 1934, when he was shot in skirmish between local warlords.
“That was a very bad time,” says Cireng Pingcuo, a grizzled shepherd near Kangwo Shan, a snow-choked pass Rock had bulldozed his way across with a convoy of yaks. “There was no law. There was lots of stealing. My grandfather buried all our belongings in a hole whenever horsemen showed up.”
The hole was still there.
We huffed past it on our way up Rock’s cold pass, on the way to the old Silk Road town of Kangding.
“A group of colored pavilions clung to the mountainside with none of the grim deliberation of a Rhineland castle, but rather with the chance delicacy of flower-petals impaled upon a crag,” Hilton wrote breathlessly of the Shangri-La lamasery, Muli’s fantasy double in Lost Horizon. It was a redoubt of “utter freedom from worldly cares” where time paused and people lived for 250 years.
The reality, though, was the same old story: beautiful and terrible, reassuringly human and without finality. Rock’s assertions aside, there was nothing in the least exotic about the place.
Muli, Muli, Muli, we’ve all been there.