Shangri-La: the dream that became a reality
In the heart of 'olde'
locals are busy giving everything a facelift. Have they managed to create the
best of both worlds? Jeremy Atiyah finds out China
You might think of Yunnan Province as the Dordogne of China, with its
pleasant weather, rustic landscapes, picturesquely dressed minority peoples,
and quaint old towns. But in consequence, the tourists are now coming. And boy,
are they coming - affluent Chinese urbanites by the thousand. Some come on
package tours, others come independently. Huge crowds of camera-clicking
tourists zoom in on every spot of cultural or natural interest. The
"old" quarter of every town is a maelstrom of boutique shops and
30 January 2005
And here I am trailing along behind, looking for ancient Eastern wisdom, though I am glad to note the analogy with the
So far I've been doing the regular tourist stuff, beside everyone else. I've been in the regional capital,
Mainly, though, I've been in Lijiang, which has become one of the great tourism phenomena of the world. If you wanted to be negative about Lijiang, you'd complain that it was a faked-up Disneyfied version of Olde
I stayed in a rickety old wooden house built round a pair of courtyards packed with potted plants and ancient bonsai trees. It was someone's private home; one of many such inns where an old man and his wife will take care of your every comfort. The only sound I could hear from my room was that of cheeping birds. For all this I paid about £4 a night. Sophisticated home-cooked dinners cost 70p extra, with large bottles of excellent cold beer at 20p.
It is tempting to stay in Lijiang for ever, but I still have a final frontier to probe. The end of
It doesn't look like a town where I'd find ancient wisdom, let alone an international hotel, but strangely enough, I'm booked into one. The Banyan Tree chain, owner of properties in countries not known for their frosts, including
But where exactly is this? A few years ago the local authorities had the big idea of renaming it to raise its profile as a tourist destination. If there is one thing I wouldn't have done, it would have been to give this town a new name. It already had two - Diqing (the original Chinese name) and Zhongdian (the Chinese rendering of the Tibetan name, Gyalthang). And now it has a third: Xianggelila (Chinese for Shangri-La). Which brings me to the British writer James Hilton.
In his 1930s novel, Lost Horizon, Hilton depicted Shangri-La as a valley hidden in the wilds of
The local authorities of the town to which I must now refer as "Shangri-La" may have identified their valley as the source of Hilton's story, but I fear that the mountains are too distant, and that the land is too brown and dusty. The other implausibility about this latter-day Shangri-La is that it is far too accessible. Look at me. I've just cruised up here on public transport. Daily flights land here. A huge economic boom, moreover, has caused a new Chinese town to spring up on its outskirts, packed with fashion shops, hairdressing salons, music stores, mobile-phone emporia and internet cafés. Three or four large hotels, oddly reminiscent of
Might not some mistake have been made in promoting a place as a peaceful haven, when the desired consequence of that promotion would be to lure large, noisy crowds to descend upon it?
Few of the locals seem to think so. Right now, the "old town" is undergoing a huge facelift. Everywhere I hear the sounds of hammering and chiselling from the interiors of fabulous Tibetan houses - stout structures with massive walls of stone and ornamental carved wood, fronted by mighty columns to support the upper floors. Work started a few months ago; the town should be ready, as good as new, in time for this summer's tourist invasion.
Not that I'm wholly disheartened. What impresses me is how affluent people from
The more time I spend here, the more fascinated I become.
I am still restless, in search of
The road from Shangri-La to Deqen is one of those incredible scenic mountain routes that you cannot imagine anyone bothering to build. It zigzags up and down near-vertical slopes surrounded by massive snowy mountains. We have lunch by the upper reaches of the
We finally reach a cold little road on a cliff-top directly overlooking the Meilixue Shan mountain range, where 13 peaks soar to 20,000ft or more. It's de rigueur among
My driver and his girl stay down below while I set off on the trek. The proper Tibetan pilgrimage is to walk around the mountain, spending 20 or 30 days over it. An Indian woman I met in Shangri-La told me how she had done this, walking alone through snowy wildernesses, falling ill, only to be rescued by passing lamas, who took her to a remote and unknown monastery to recover her health, leading prayers for her day and night. Compared with that, this touristic pilgrimage - up to the glacier and back - feels rather trivial. But the Chinese tourists help me to restore my pride. They all ride mules, while I walk. In fact, I only just make it, unaccustomed as I am to the altitude (nearly 12,000 feet). Here is the glacier, groaning and creaking in a colossal swathe down the mountain.
My big spiritual moment occurs on the return journey, when I fall in with a Tibetan family. Here is an old gentleman and his wife, and their grown-up children, splendidly dressed and smelling of yak-butter. They scurry like mountain goats down through the forest. Somehow, they encourage me to follow them along invisible short cuts. They keep offering to carry my bag. They seem to be asking me for money, but when I offer it, they look at me as if I am mad - all they want is a picture of the Dalai Lama. Anyway, we keep going, and as we go, I fall into a kind of rhythm, my head empties and my spirits rise and I tell myself I am half-way to finding Buddhism.
Jeremy Atiyah is a co-author of 'The Rough Guide to
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Jeremy Atiyah flew from
Where to stay
He stayed in Shangri-la as a guest of the Gyalthang Dzong Hotel (00 86 887 822 3646; www.coloursofangsana.com/gyalthang). The hotel reopens on
Contact the China National Tourist Office (0900 160 0188; www.cnta.gov.cn). Tourist visas, which are valid for three months, are required. Contact Chinese Embassy Visa Information (0900 188 0808).