Fan Wen still remembers when he was stranded in the southeastern mountains of Tibet three years ago.
Landslides had blocked the only road out of the village he was in on the banks of the Lancang River, which had no phone. Fan was desperate to call home, as his daughter had been ill when Fan left Kunming, the capital of Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
To get to a phone, he had to spend an hour climbing over the mountains to reach the nearest village that had a phone. But he couldn't get through, even though he kept trying for an hour.
On his way back, he couldn't help but asking the indifferent hills around him: "How can any place on earth be this backward?"
"The feeling of being completely isolated from the outside world was overpowering. Call such a feeling what you will, but it really helped me identify with the people living in that valley," Fan said to the publishers and writers in Beijing who had invited him to attend a seminar on his latest book Land of Water and Milk (Shuiru Dadi) in March.
Before 1999, Fan had no plan to write novels about ethnic minority regions.
That year, he joined six other writers in an expedition into Tibet Autonomous Region.
Fan chose the ancient Tea Horse Road (Cha Ma Gudao), a winding route through gorgeous mountains and ravines between Yunnan and Tibet. In many places, the trail becomes so narrow that even experienced horses are reluctant to go through.
On the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Fan found himself admiring the snowy mountains, forests, grasslands, lakes and gods with the eyes of a Tibetan.
Over the past four years, he has been journeying in and out of the region constantly.
What attracts him in particular is the rich spiritual life of the people living in such harsh conditions.
Besides Tibetan Buddhism and the Dongba Religion of the Naxi people, Catholicism which was introduced by Western missionaries in the latter half of the 19th century also has its followers in the region.
Fan Wen's novel primarily concerns the Catholic church in Yanjing Naxi Autonomous Township, in Mangkam County in the eastern part of Tibet Autonomous Region. But other churches nearby, though none of them are located in Tibet, also provided inspiration for his novel.
One of them is located in Cizhong Village, in Yunnan's Deqen County, where the local people still plant grapes and make wine, an industry introduced by French missionaries.
Fan remarked that without going there, one can "never feel how Tibetan Buddhism, Catholicism and the Dongba Religion evolved through the course of bloody struggles into a perfect blending, like water and milk, in such a narrow valley."
Fan has taken nearly 10,000 photographs and read over 10 million words in reference works to deepen his understanding of Tibetan culture and religion.
One winter, he left Kunming to journey some 600 kilometers to spend Christmas with local parishioners in the Catholic church in Yanjing Town. He lived in the church for a while, reading, writing, and helping the priest and sisters to cut firewood.
"Spending four years researching the book was like going to college," Fan said. "College can be a turning point in a young man's life; learning about a different culture can be a turning point in the career of a writer."
Fan recalls the influence of Lust For Life -- Irving Stone's biography on Vincent Van Gogh -- when he explains why he left his hometown in Sichuan Province to begin his job at the Yunnan Geological and Mineral Bureau in 1985.
"I need a life full of passion. So I chose a job totally unrelated to what I had studied in university," said Fan, who had majored in Chinese at Southwest Normal University in Chongqing .
Fan published his first short novel in 1986. Urban love, family trivialities and office life have been the themes of his previous works.
"These stories are like ripples in a tea cup. There is nothing beyond imagination," he said.
Thus, when he encountered the villages where different ethnic cultures, religions and ethnic minorities clashed and then ran together, he was touched to the bone by the power of faith.
"If you stay in your study, you can never imagine how a Tibetan man could walk into a church and sing odes with the purity of voice often heard in mountain songs.
"You can never see the local residents carry water from the Lancang River and evaporate it under the sun to get salt, a daily necessity and their sole source of cash income.
"In this valley with its formidable living conditions, the mix of nationalities, religions, cultures and beliefs has gone through unimaginable pains and happiness. This I believe offers an encapsulated vision of mankind's progress in the 20th century."
When the China Novel Society announced the latest list of top Chinese novels in March, Fan's work was among the top six long novels.
The national level academic organization invited professors and doctoral students of Chinese literature from universities to choose the novels, according to Tang Jifu, deputy director of the Society.
Also in March, the China Writers' Association, People's Literature Publishing House, the magazine Chinese Writers and the Yunnan Provincial Federation of Literary and Art Circles jointly held a seminar on Fan's novel.
Some critics said that it's been a long time since a Chinese writer has talked about religion with such enthusiasm, described the beauties of nature untouched by civilization with such passion, or caught the fireworks when humans clash with gods.
Many have pointed out at first glance, Fan's novel carries the same humorous tone as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia.
Fan did read Marquez's book each night while writing this novel. But rather than linking his work with Magical Realism as we see it in Solitude, he prefers to refer to his writing style in the novel as "divine realism."
"Magical Realism is a writing technique, but my book is an attempt to capture the reality of the divine."
He explains that for the people living on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, belief in the Buddha is vital. It would be too rash to label everything as primitive superstition.
"It takes enormous courage and strong faith for people to live under such great peril and face such overwhelming difficulties. Without faith, without awe for Buddha or other gods, they wouldn't be able to cope with such a world, or surmount the challenges it presents."
While writing the book, Fan wasn't sure if he could portray the characters from their own points of view. He kept showing the manuscripts to Tibetan friends and asking if they would really think and act in the ways he portrays them.
It's obvious that Fan's efforts have paid off. There have already been two reprints of the novel and over 40,000 copies have been sold.
At the back of Fan's book, A Lai, author of When Dust Settles Down (Chen'ai Luoding), which won the nation's top literary laurel, the 5th Maodun Literary Award, in 2000, said that this book is "extravagant."
"This could well be three novels following present writing practices," said A Lai, who is of Tibetan origin.
Fan said he never thought about saving material for later works.
"When you don't need to worry about getting enough rice through your writing, why not write a book that you really care about?"
(China Daily June 9, 2004)