Gongchoe Tsultim (left) with Tibetan Buddhist monks visited a
Red Army Long March memorial in Diqing, Yunnan province.
Provided to China Daily
The name Shangri-La evokes images of a utopia - a secluded paradise filled with happy, forever-young people - made famous by British author James Hilton in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.
But for Ji Xinmei, born into a poor, ethnic Yi family in Yunnan province's Diqing prefecture, living in Shangri-La only made her more determined to leave her impoverished hometown for a better life.
In August, 1995, Ji, then 12, graduated from primary school. However, her family could barely afford to let her continue her studies. It was at that time that she learned about Gongchoe Tsultim, a vice-commander of the Diqing military sub-area, who reportedly assisted poor students to further their studies.
"I happened to come across a story about Gongchoe from old newspapers that we used to seal the windows of our run-down home," she says.
Ji wrote to him, asking for help.
"I was not sure if the letter would reach him because I wasn't even sure of his exact address," Ji says.
"But I waited every day at the top of a hill in our town, to see if the postman brought any word from him."
A month later, Ji was stunned to see Gongchoe in her house. He had come in person to offer his help.
For about 10 years, Gongchoe offered his assistance in cash that helped Ji complete her six-year middle school and four-year university education.
After graduating from Yunnan University of Nationalities in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, Ji got a job as a journalist in the city.
But she quit and returned to Diqing last year to become a teacher.
"Uncle Gongchoe had countless opportunities to enjoy city life after retirement, but he decided to stay in Diqing to serve the people. I was inspired to do the same," Ji says.
Gongchoe was born into a Tibetan family in 1954, and joined the PLA when he was 16. He died of high-altitude sickness in February last year at the age of 55.
"I always complained about my husband when he was alive, that he was always so much more considerate to others than to his own family," says his wife Sonam Lhamo.
"I know many young people whom my husband helped. I've lost track of the amount of money and time he spent on them," she says.
"He refused repeated offers to relocate to Kunming and treat his disease," she says.
Gongchoe stayed in Diqing and encouraged his 26-year-old daughter, 21-year-old son, and 23-year-old adopted son to do the same.
"I even resented my father when I was young because he had so little time for us," says Gong Jianping, Gongchoe's son.
"But, I admired him once I grew up and understood his work," he says.
Diqing is located in Yunnan's northwest region, with the Tibet autonomous region to its west and Sichuan province to its east.
There are 26 ethnic groups in Diqing, with the main minority group being Tibetan.
"The oxygen in this area is only about 60 percent of that in cities like Beijing, but our soldiers never give up," says commissar Yao Shizhong.