Mary Hilliard, known for her society and fashion photography to readers of the NYSD, Vogue, Town & Country as well as the major shelter magazines, took a special trip to China. This was a voyage motivated by the desire to look at another side to living on the planet. It was a trip not so much to “see” China, but instead to visit a cultural retreat, an antidote perhaps, to the frenetic, eclectic, fast-paced life of the metropolis.
Besides her photojournalism in the upper-echelon of metropolitan life, Mary’s camera does her personal writing, writes her poetry, paints her masterpieces. I don’t know this for a fact that this is her intention, because we’ve never discussed it, and she’s naturally modest about herself, but her camera expresses that eye and sensibility of hers most authentically.
This collection of photographs which she lent to NYSD for publication is a good example.
This was her diary and scrapbook of sorts from the trip.
Forget about a slow boat to China, instead hop on a fast plane as I did a short time ago. After a brief exploration of Beijing, aided by its marvelous subway system, I flew southwest to Shangri-La in Yunnan Province, which borders Tibet. I was lured there after I read an article suggesting that the beauty and serenity of the remote area resembled the fabled paradise described by James Hilton’s famous novel, “Lost Horizons.”
The largest town, renamed Shangri-La to entice tourists, boasts the vast golden roofed Songzanlin monastery. Its enormous high ceilinged rooms are dazzling — every inch covered with colorful wall paintings, carvings, draperies and myriad golden elaborately bedecked buddhas — where devout visitors pray and make offerings to their favorites. In front of the monastery a tree-lined path circles a small lake, amusing admonitions dotting the way: “No plucking” (flowers), “no tramping” (grass) and “Caution falling into the water.”
Shangri-La is also home base for the Songtsam Lodges, built in Tibetan style by a local Tibetan, Baima Dorji, creating five tranquil retreats throughout the province. I had a car and driver to take me to four of the hotels. Though similar in atmosphere — polished wood floors (all the guests were given slippers to wear indoors), Tibetan art work, gracious, polite staff, delicious and varied meals — each had its own characteristics.
I particularly liked the Lodge at Tacheng, about a three hour drive from Shangri-La. We drove through lush cultivated farm land and simple villages, passed cattle and sheep, sometimes in fields and sometimes on the roads. At Tacheng, I hiked through a verdant forest to watch a several families of endangered pink-lipped snub-nosed monkeys feeding and playing through the trees and underbrush.
Another day we hiked to a small mountain village where the local children were signing up for school in a large modern concrete building, just beside a waterfall-powered mill grinding corn into flour and beehives in hollow logs.
On the way to Meili, about a 5-hour drive from Tacheng, the road followed the wide, swiftly moving muddy Yangtze River through deep gorges, then clung, nary a guard rail in sight, to the sides of ever steeper and barer mountains across the 4600-meter-high Baima Snow Mountain Pass.
Once over the pass we could see a vast panorama of snow-covered mountains with 13 glaciers ranging along the Tibetan border. At the Meili Lodge, besides the ubiquitous soft slippers, I was offered soul satisfying hot ginger tea, to offset possible altitude problems.
At dawn the next day, I was surprised by an unrequested wake up call to make sure I would see, through my bedroom window, a glorious sunrise across the jagged mountains. The area draws serious hikers and the shops in the frontier town, DeQing, stocked a welter of various goods, mountaineering paraphernalia, household plastics, cell phones and traditional colorful Tibetan clothing.
Throughout the trip the landscape was beautiful and fascinating, the people gentle, gracious and friendly (although not many spoke English) and it all seemed agreeably remote and peaceful, certainly a Shangri-La of sorts. But everywhere there were also signs of major change as the Chinese push towards Tibet: new highways, railroads, tunnels through the mountains and hotels being built. Huge trucks carried building materials and fuel. Along the roads, I saw stacks of logs, lumber, concrete piled everywhere as workers tore down old buildings to make way for the new. So better take a fast plane, before it’s all changed forever.