10/29/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

Shangri-La: The Myth Goes On

Shangri-La is the name of a fictional place described by writer James Hilton in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. While the place in the novel was located at the western end of the Himalaya mountains, the geographical location, which is closer in appearance to the one described by the novelist is the territory of Diqing (which once belonged to Tibet) in the county of Zhongdian, today called by the Chinese "Shangri-La," and part of the province of Yunnan where I am now.

The author, however, mentions an area north to Ladakh, known as Aksai-Chin, an almost deserted region close to the India-China border and located at a height between 16,000 and 23,000-feet. The novel was so successful at the start of the last century that many believed the myth, and so adventurers and researchers and sentimental travelers of all kinds started seeking for the new Shangri-La. And such imaginary paradise captured people's imagination so much it almost became synonymous with heaven on earth.

The myth is still strong. If the area mentioned actually corresponds to Yunnan, I must admit that this is a true paradise. Luxuriant, endless, it enjoys a temperate climate the whole year through despite its 6,500-feet of height. It is also called the land of eternal spring. A boundless and flawless-looking land on which nature has neatly "positioned" palms and bamboo trees and thousands of other varieties. Few villages and very few towns, aside from the capital Kunmig. The rural areas are poor and inhabitants live off tea and sugar cane growing, but in many cases they have to leave their land and try to find a job in proximity to big cities.

The Yunnan province features the highest number of ethnic groups of the whole of China: Among the 55 recognized ethnic groups, 25 are found in this area, with the best-known being the Wa people, who live in the Cangyuan area.

My trip with Save the Children and the WHO aims specially at observing the actual condition of mothers and children. Complications at birth and diarrhea help cause 315,000 under five children to die every year of pneumonia. The poverty of the region and its mountainous territory further complicate things when traveling around and also makes it impossible, in case of need, to reach the biggest and better-equipped villages.

As it often happens with all poorest populations, one perceives a great sense of dignity here, where health centers with just a doctor and an assistant have to take care of 180,000 people. We visited various villages and, despite the excellent results achieved by Save the Children and the WHO, there is still plenty to do, especially in consideration that Eastern China has almost reached the goal to reduce children and mothers' death according to the scheme of the United Nation Millennium Development Goals, while in the western areas deaths are still twice as much than in the east.

I have left a paradise that, nevertheless, is a myth. Admiring the scenery is wonderful, but being aware of the truth is a duty. The duty of us all.