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Shangri-la or Bust!

A sliver of white rushed down the surrounding 15,000 foot high mountains, one of the dozen or so run-offs that fled the snowy peaks for the depths of the forty mile long Erhai Lake to the east. This particular stream flowed through the old cobble-stoned streets of Xizhou, past the ancient city square where once American Flying Tiger servicemen shopped for souvenirs and where now colorfully clad Bai tribal farmers battered their goods, alongside the restaurant where Coke and Marlboro neon bathed fighting chickens waiting for the dinner rush, and formed a moat around the headquarters of the Yunnan Provincial county government where the supervisor, Mr. Yang, sat across from me with a crooked smile and laughed, "So you want to buy a home in paradise.. Well, listen up."

A lattice window, its rice paper tattered and blowing toward the mountains, afforded me a view of the rushing waters. I sat thinking of the serenity I had felt along its banks days before. It seduced me with its whispers of year-round spring weather, echoed with stories of the region's 25 unique tribal groups, and reflected the brilliance of Santa Fe-like skies in its waters. These memories caressed me as I listened to Mr. Yang. No obstacles were going to keep my family from getting a piece of paradise.

The hills surrounding Xizhou are covered with disciplined rows of green tea bushes. Tea originated in these hills, but now vies with coffee plants for territorial domination. Xizhou had been the base for many of the most successful merchants who plied their wares to the caravans carrying tea northward into Tibet and central China. Four famous families, the Kennedy's or Ford's of Xizhou, built elaborate courtyard homes to accommodate their extended family, servants, and concubines. I was trying to convince Mr. Yang to sell us the largest of these four complexes- the Zhao family mansion.

Private property is a new concept in post Mao China. The Communist Party, after coming to power in 1949, confiscated all land in China, a landmass roughly equivalent to the United States. The government became the sole owner of land and divided management among urban work units (government-run companies or institutions) and rural government bureaus. It was not until the mid-1990s that land use slowly became less regulated. As I sparred with Mr. Yang, confusion seemed to have replaced regulation as an equally insurmountable obstacle to property ownership.

The Xizhou home of the Zhao Family consists of six courtyards making up over one acre of two story buildings. The structures date back to the 16th century, the walls exquisitely patterned with relief carved gray brick. The roofs are gabled with a gentle Asian lift reaching out confidently over the courtyards below. This complex has been featured in numerous books on Chinese architecture and is supposedly one of the oldest remaining courtyards along the Burma Road.

My wife, Jeanee, and I plan to turn the complex into an elegant and indigenous guesthouse/art retreat. Our model would be The Clearing, our neighbor here in Ellison Bay. We would renovate the buildings, converting them into comfortable guest rooms furnished with traditional Chinese furniture and art. Each room would look out onto a courtyard. The lower rooms would serve as art workshops for visiting artists from Door County and other parts of Asia. The space would enable sojourners from diverse backgrounds to share ideas and experiences and perhaps develop joint projects.

Additionally, we would turn one courtyard into a coffee/wine bar and gallery. We would be able to entertain our visitors with local musicians, storytellers, and dancers all while sipping an espresso or cabernet in the spring-like air.

Structurally, the problems are endless. There are no flushing toilets in the whole complex. Nineteen families currently live throughout its many buildings with an outhouse just outside the front entrance serving as the only bathroom. Electricity is sporadically placed, no heating of any kind exists, and most of the roofs will need to be completely redone. There are numerous cases of water damage in the upper rooms and very few of the finely carved window panels and shutters remain unscathed from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

There is however history, it emanates every crack of the complex, it breathes in every corner, and rests on every step. And it is this history, along with the calming waters of the surrounding countryside that have convinced us to move ahead with the discussions.

Mr. Yang prefaces our talks with a reminder that we, as buyers, would have to take care of the moving of the 19 families currently residing in the complex. We would be responsible only for the building of another home equal to each family's current square foot allocated space. This would enable us to secure the "Land Use" certification, only part one of the home buying process in China.

Part two involves tracking the deed of the building. After 1949, the communist party confiscated all land, with little attention paid to who owned what. Nearly sixty years later, Chinese families are putting in claims for their families' former residences. Some of these families are returning from exile in Taiwan, Singapore or North America to put in claims. The communist party has tried to resolve some of these claims and has compensated families in order to keep the status quo in buildings such as the Zhao Family complex, where changing ownership would require the government to have to build homes for those 19 families. There have been some cases, however, where the government claimed to have the "Land Certification" only to provide the "Land Use" certificate. This leaves a buyer vulnerable to any future claim on the property. Foreigners cannot buy title insurance of any kind and are not eligible for bank loans in the region. Lawyers are as rare as rainy days in Yunnan.

Utilities are equally complicated. We would have to buy rights to electricity and water from the government. Payment for 5-10 years in advance may be necessary. Such a payment, according to Mr. Yang, ensures a steady supply of electric power and some of China's best water from that sliver of a temptress that lured me to his office.

Mr. Yang's enthusiasm is genuine. He clearly believes that our investment in the Zhao complex would be important to Xizhou. We would be setting a precedent in the region, a foreign couple buying an historically-important building in order to help attract more visitors to the area. He guarantees us national publicity and endless local support.

As we walked along the outer walls of the complex, an older woman pulled me aside. I followed her into a small courtyard filled with drying batik and barking dogs, and shooed away some chickens to secure a space on the tired stone steps. There she told me about the secrets of traditional Chinese families in this region and their treasures.

In pre-1949 China, many families hid their savings in their homes. Whenever turmoil caused them to flee for a period of time, families would bury their savings in their courtyards. Not all complexes have treasures, but many courtyards still may have jade, gold and silver buried within their walls. According to this woman, the Zhao treasure has never been found. It may still may lie hidden somewhere under the elaborately carved Ming stones. This story only enhanced the romance of the project.

Jeanee and I would like to document the whole project on film and paper. We have been in discussions with both television stations and publishing houses. In a Michener-esque style, we would explore the house's history as we renovate various parts. The search for gold, however, like the infamous Geraldo-special, may be a small mystery perhaps never uncovered even in our lifetimes. Jeanee, our children Shane and Bryce and I feel that living in Shangri-la will be the greatest treasure!