Longed-for Himalayan utopia a carefully crafted tourist myth


SHANGRI-LA LETTER:THE WORLD’S biggest prayer wheel stands on the hill, a giant revolving golden cylinder etched against the clear blue sky. The narrow, cobbled streets below weave in between single-storey wooden buildings with delicately arched tiled roofs. Brightly coloured Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags are draped between trees.

In many ways the town of Shangri-La, high up on the Tibetan plateau in Yunnan province, western China, lives up to the image of its name. Being at such an altitude can cause dizziness, a touch of euphoria. A yak ambles past, the gentle thonk, thonk of the bamboo bell round its neck punctuating the early morning silence. Then, from far off, the echo of a cuckoo greeting the rising sun. “It’s all a carefully built myth,” says the man with skin like tanned leather sitting in the yak meat restaurant in Shangri-La’s main street.

“The prayer wheel was only put there a few years ago. Most of the ‘old’ houses are newly built. It’s all been constructed for the tourists.” My companion – I’ll call him Li – is a former university lecturer from eastern China, exiled to this remote corner of Yunnan during the ravages of Mao Tse Tung’s cultural revolution. Now living elsewhere, he has come back for a visit. “I was sent to Shangri-La as punishment.” A laugh turns into a gravelly smoker’s cough.

“There was not much here in the old days – but then the communists saw they could make lots of money out of tourism.”

In the 1930s, James Hilton, a British writer, first wrote about “Shangri-La” in his novel Lost Horizon. Hilton conjured up an idyllic land of learned lamas where time stood still, where people never grew old, where there were no conflicts or wars and where crops and fruit grew in abundance. Films were made, a perfect world was formed. The story is a good read, a work of Hilton’s fertile imagination: in fact, he never visited China, and wrote his book in north London.

Over the years, several places in China – and in Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan – claimed the title of Shangri-La. Then, 10 years ago, enterprising officials in what was then the small town of Zhongdian gathered journalists from all over China, lavishing gifts and hospitality on them. The journalists went away and obligingly wrote about the beauties of Shangri-La. Beijing decreed a name change, a myth became reality – and the tourist dollars started to flow.

Unlike Hilton’s mythical region, present day Shangri-La has its tensions. Though the local population is made up mainly of Tibetans and those who Beijing refers to as minority peoples, in recent years there’s been a large influx of Han Chinese from more densely populated eastern China. Outside the tourist town another, uglier, Shangri-La of cement-block built malls and offices has grown up. There’s a substantial military base outside the town, and imposing buildings, constructed in the style of Tibetan lamaseries with numerous small windows on each side, house the local communist party headquarters and the security services.

In the valleys below the town a giant road scheme, the Yunnan-Tibet highway, is snaking its way across hundreds of miles of landscape. The area in and around Tibet is rich in minerals: soon they are likely to be exploited to feed China’s ever growing economy. Shangri-La and other areas will be further developed.

We sit in the town’s very modern Paradise Hotel and share a bottle of Yunnan wine. The taste is light and pleasant. Centuries ago, Jesuit missionaries planted vines in the area. “The locals don’t like the way the newcomers control the tourism industry and the economy,” says Li. “But on the other hand there’s far more money about and people can build their houses and send their children to school.” Away from the town and its souvenir shops, there’s still a haunting beauty about the region. In the evening I plod up a steep hill to a Tibetan temple, careful to take long, slow breaths in the oxygen-starved air. Here on the roof of the world the nights are sharp and clear, the stars seem much closer.

A lama is in the midst of his highly energetic prayers – repeatedly prostrating himself and jumping up: he then collapses into a corner – and plays a game on his mobile phone.