Awithin months of moving to Dali, in the fall of 2020, I finally started climbing Cangshan, the high mountain that towers over this valley in southwest China. Every morning I looked up at the top of its imposing ridgeline, 2,000m above the village of Silver Bridge, north of Dali’s historic old town, which I called home for a while. Eighteen glacial gorges separated the 19 peaks, each carved by a running stream. Ever since I moved there, I fantasized about standing on top of that mountain. Reaching its summit became a goal I latched onto. Scaling it would be healing, I convinced myself.
I was not alone in that outlook. It is the quest for personal change that draws so many escapees from China’s cities to this rural valley. Cangshan (the “green mountain”) is a spectacular 44 km long massif covered by lush evergreen forest, hugging the western shore of a crystalline lake and straddling a valley in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, near the border with Myanmar, looming. . Every evening I sat from my farmhouse and watched the sun set over them, casting rays of pink, yellow and ocher through the clouds rolling down from the ridgeline.
There is a saying in Chinese: “The mountains are high, the emperor is far.” It speaks of escape from the urban nexus of power, of self-exile in rural climate. The Dali Valley in Yunnan Province, far away from Beijing, where I have lived for the past seven years, has a storied history as just such a haven. The ancestors of Dali’s native ethnicity, the Bai people, are thought to have come here to flee warring dynasties in the north. In modern times, it has become an increasingly trendy destination for those who want to leave the city and get back to nature. Its ancient old town and surrounding villages are dotted with urbanites renting cottages and farmhouses, looking to get away from it all. And I was one of them.
Around the time I made the move to Dali, a new Chinese buzzword started appearing online: “involution”. The Chinese, neijuan, literally means to be “rolled up inside”. If you worked 12 hours a day, you were rolled up by overwork culture. If you were a student whose parents packed your weekends with back-to-back classes, you were screwed by the education system. If you commuted two hours to pay off a shoebox apartment and buy a car so you could attract a partner, you were bound by social convention.
One blog post compared neijuan to the prisoner’s dilemma, using an image of a concert where those in the front rows stood up to get a better view. If everyone was sitting, the view would be the same – but because some were standing, everyone behind them had to too. Not social evolution, but involution. A solution was proposed: instead of standing or sitting, lie down. The word used for this, tangerine, literally meant to lay flat, but indicated a deeper elimination of the system. If the game was rigged and social mobility was impossible, then why bother? Leave the rat race; break the cycle. The most extreme form was to escape the city altogether. If material goals were not fulfilled, there might be another mountain to climb.
Dali has been jokingly dubbed the “capital of lying down”. Others called it “Dalifornia” for its good weather and chilled vibes. The back-to-the-land trend was a direct reversal of everything upwardly mobile Chinese used to hold dear. For decades, those born in the countryside just wanted to escape its poverty. But for the generations born in China’s megacities, some wanted to return to the land their ancestors came from. After 40 years of urbanization, the flow has reversed.
Of course I’m not Chinese. I was a privileged, white Brit who descended on the town. Yet I found myself just as burned out by life in Beijing as my fellow city dwellers. Born and bred in Oxford, after graduating from university in 2007 I traveled to China for a summer to teach, caught the China bug and stayed for the next 15 years. At the time, Beijing was one of the world’s most exciting cities. But after 2017, something shifted. As the state moved toward authoritarianism, China tightened rather than opened up. The city no longer felt like the center of a dynamic nation, but the heart of a police state.
Or maybe it was me who was regressing. I was becoming the cliché of the bitter expat. Old friends left Beijing; I had relationship problems with my long-term partner, which I chose to ignore. Without a new project after my first book was published, I felt lethargic about work. I was in a groove. Then came the knock on my door: the building I lived in was an illegal structure and had to be demolished. If you had asked me if I wanted to go, I would have said no. I needed the push to realize something had to change. We ended our engagement on the second day of 2020 and within two weeks I was on the train to Dali.
Here I met other urban transplants, each looking for their own Shangri-la in which to reinvent themselves. The hippies and yuppies, bohemians and bourgeois, environmentalists and survivalists, homeschoolers and retirees, Taoists and Buddhists, psychopaths and oneironauts, dissidents and digital nomads. Refugees from modernity, choose from China’s honking high-rises to live far from the center of state power, trying to be free in an unfree land. In the process, as coffee shops and yoga studios popped up around the valley to cater to us, we changed the very rural escape we sought.
Above it all appears the mountain. In October I packed my tent and set off at first light, to scale the cross of donkey tracks that wind their way up. It took a full day to reach the summit, up a steep and grueling incline. The last stretch was hard going, through a bamboo forest that thickened around the narrow path, more of a scramble than a hike. My legs were starting to give, and I was worried about fading light. Then, out of nowhere, the path appeared and a large pool of water stretched out before me, bordered by silver pine trees. I reached my destination. The ridge was another 200m higher, but I camped overnight at a series of lakes just below it. The next morning I made the last climb before sunrise.
Sure, I felt a sense of satisfaction at the top. A physical task is completed. But emotionally it was a disappointment. I dreamed of the symbolism of this climb. But as I watched the sun rise over the valley, as beautiful as I expected it to be, I felt no revelation.
I projected a lot of meaning onto Dali. It was on this mountain that I was convinced that I would be restored, fixed. The appeal was in its isolation. To remove myself from society and city, from a romantic, wounded self-image. Yet isolation is internal. I realized the answers I was looking for were not up here in these wooded hills.
Dusk fell on the second night when I dismounted and came home. Now, back in my courtyard and looking up at the mountains, I saw them in a new light. It was their mystery that first drew me to Dali; the prospect of their power to transform. But I knew the work of finding spiritual calm, true calm, was here to be done on the ground.
I started cooking, fixing up my rented farmhouse, growing vegetables and spending time outdoors. Hobbies also: music, running, archery and tai chi. But my new interests and the idyllic location alone did not make me happy. I changed place, but physical change was not enough: I had to change my mind. I started talk therapy, over Zoom, and learned tools and tricks to regulate my emotions. Nature, spirituality and meditation have replaced screens, scrolling and constant comparison in my daily routine. In fact, when I failed to stop my digital addiction on my own; I swallowed my pride and joined a 12-step program.
I knew I wouldn’t stay in Dali forever – it was a false utopia. My goal was to be in the middle of chaotic traffic or a major crisis and still access inner calm. After three years in the valley, I left China. I now live in New York and start a new life again. But I try to keep alive some of the spirit of Dali, and its lessons: from finding inner refuge where I can, to remembering that I am not the center of the universe. Sometimes, maybe, lay flat for a while.
As told to Michael Segalov
The mountains are high: a year of Escape and Discovery in rural china, by Alec If, is out on February 8 (Scribe, £16.99). Buy it for £14.78 guardianbookshop.com