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  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

Touched by Shangri-La

AFR Sophisticated Traveller, September 2016

Disaster almost confined the ancient town to fiction. Chris Wright finds it revived, mystique intact

Below is the text as filed. To see the article as it ran in the AFR, click here

NB This is one of the few articles on this site where the photography is not mine. This image is sourced from Hylandia by Shangri-La

Back in 1933, the British author James Hilton published the novel Lost Horizons, and introduced a whole new word and idea into our consciousness: Shangri-La.

In the book, four people on a hijacked plane find themselves stranded in an ethereal and isolated settlement in a Himalayan valley, where mysterious people in a monastery live to be 200 years old without appearing to age. Shangri-La was the name of this mythical place, later picked up and used by the Hong Kong-based hotel chain in 1971, and it entered the popular imagination as a generic term for a certain kind of place: peaceful, beautiful, idyllic. And fictional.

Not any more. In the late 1990s, the government of Yunnan calculated that the southwestern Chinese province corresponded with the topography and location described in the book, and laid claim to being the place Hilton was referring to all that time ago. And so the quiet city of Zhongdian – or Gyaitang, to its Tibetan population – was renamed Shangri-La in December 2001. These days, you can fly there.

It was, of course, a tourist grab, but it was not unsuccessful. China characteristically put in the infrastructure to support it, such as an airport festooned with vivid Tibetan artistry on the walls and circular mandalas in the ceilings, and hoisted the world’s biggest prayer wheel up a hill and in to the monastery in the Old Town. And, steadily, people began to come, adding the town and its beautiful surroundings to itineraries that had typically stopped at the traveller towns of Dali and Lizhang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge further south. Soon 500,000 people a year were coming.

It grew, and it grew; and then, in January 2014, Shangri-La caught fire.

The old town, which the Tibetans know as Dukezong and have settled for about 1,100 years, had been the heart of the tourist experience. Built entirely with wood from the surrounding forests, with prayer flags above and cobbled streets below, it was an evocative place to drift and get lost. But the pace of tourist development over the previous 15 years had become ramshackle and unchecked with shops, bars and restaurants on top of each other. When the fire went up, the weather had been dry, the wood and the terraced buildings provided fuel, and the water that could have put it out was frozen solid. Nobody died, but most of the town – probably three quarters – was razed.

Today, rebuilding is well-advanced, and the tourists are being coaxed back. They’re expecting a great summer season. But is it really Shangri-La, a place to enjoy the serenity the word is now intended to evoke? If you go, will you – as the hotel slogan has it – find your Shangri-La?

You certainly can’t fault the place’s location. Yunnan is beautiful from top to bottom and feels very different to much of the country, forming China’s borders with Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar and carrying some influence from each. But the province’s northwest corner is where it really turns on the charm. Here, the Himalaya start to rise in earnest, and the Tibetan culture becomes increasingly evident. By the time you get to Shangri-La, you’re 3,200 metres above sea level, which is why the hotels carry not only bottled water but bottled oxygen.

Pleasingly, it is possible to stay at the Shangri-La Shangri-La. Strictly speaking, it’s known as The Hylandia in order to avoid the confusion of the double description, though personally I think they should embrace it.

The hotel is something of a microcosm of what the place has tried to achieve, which you might call Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese commercial characteristics. Senior management are mainly Han Chinese but the in-house travel agency is run by local Buddhists, and Tibetan NGOs operate out of the premises for free. The lobby is like no other Shang, a vast open-plan darkness of deep brown wood, with Tibetan and Chinese items on the shelves. The restaurants mix the foods of both cultures, of which the Tibetan side, invariably, involves a great deal of yak.

The town itself is a mixed blessing. The newer part is your usual blocky Chinese city, punctuated by constant flashes from eager overhead traffic cameras (it might be Tibetan but good old Chinese authoritarian surveillance thrives). There is a mighty cultural arts centre, where every night an impressively choreographed dance performance showcases Tibetan history to a half-empty hall with a few tour groups in it, but the old town is still what people really come to see.

When AFR Sophisticated Traveller visits, it’s still half-rebuilt. A lot of work has been done, and it is probably a very positive thing that one can’t always tell which are the buildings that survived the fire, and which are the ones that have been rebuilt in the same style. It is a great relief to find that nobody’s pulled down an ancient wooden restaurant and stuck a concrete Hilton on it (or a Shangri-La, for that matter; the Shang here, like the other big hotels, is in the newer bit of town). There is lots left to do, and the sound of heavy industrial saws fills the air, but luckily the town’s main monastery, with its incongruous battleship of a three-storey prayer wheel, survived the fire and is free to visit.

For eating and drinking, the old town is a lot of fun, though as always with these places it’s best to resist the temptation to try any local approximation of a pizza or anything else western. Instead, it’s better to go local, which in practice means learning to love hotpots and yak.

One can get a bit fixated with yak around here. In the Old Town one night I treated myself to a meal with four kinds of meat, all of which turned out to be yak.


“This meat is yak.”

Great. And this? “Also yak.”

This one? “Yak.”

And this is… “Pork.”

A brief exchange follows with a colleague.

“No, sorry, I am wrong. It is yak.”

But yak, seasoned and cooked in a variety of ways, is great, and the heartbeat of local farm life. One sees thousands of them roaming on the Napa Lake, a green meadow which from June is filled with colourful flowers (and yak) and which fills with water in the winter. Yak carry few markings to distinguish ownership. “There is no need,” my guide tells me. “They know where they live and they walk home at the end of the day.” And, failing that, their owners – in three-storey wooden dwellings where the bottom floor is for the animals – can apparently recognize them by face anyway.

It takes seven years before a yak is killed for its meat, and when it is, it can feed a family for half a year. This is one reason Buddhists in this area make an exception to their vegetarian principles for yak: realizing that, in this climate and location, proper nutrition is difficult without some meat (especially for young monks), they reason it is best to take the minimum number of animal lives and so opt for the one that will supply the most people for the longest time. Before that day the yak will have kept a family supplied with butter, milk and cheese. When they go, there’s not a bit of them that isn’t used, from the fur and the leather to the skull – kept on doors to protect the family – and tail.


An important benefit of visiting this part of the world is that it allows one to experience Tibetan culture without the moral queasiness that comes with visiting Tibet itself, whose recent history with China has been so violent, oppressive and tragic. The Tibetans – as they consider themselves – in Yunnan operate with apparently far greater freedom, and this make a tangible difference to the traveller.

This is nowhere clearer than at Songzanlin, a monastery rising above a lake about 10 kilometres outside Shangri-La itself. Although somewhat less grandly appointed than the legendary Potala Palace in Lhasa, it has advantages: one sees far more monks here (800 live within the compound) and one has the real sense of being in a functioning, thriving monastery without any of the feeling of military or social oppression that visitors report from visiting Lhasa.

And a thriving Buddhist monastery is quite a thing. This one, like much of the area, adheres to the so-called yellow hat branch of Buddhism, the one followed by the Dalai Lama. It has three soaring red halls, reached, inevitably, by an exhausting set of steps. Each hall is ornate, every square inch covered with colour or construction: vibrant paintings of classic Buddhist images cover the walls, while the pillars are covered in multi-coloured drapery before reaching cascaded underbalconies of painted blocks; huge golden Buddha statues survey the scene. And in front of them, hundreds of monks go about their everyday business and ignore their visitors. Bells ring; kids as young as seven sprint off in their robes, as excited to get to a meal or a game or a toilet as any other kid, while the dull bass vibrations of the elder monks’ chants remain.


So: Is this Shangri-La?

Well, that’s tricky. A key argument against this being the place Hilton was referring to in his book is that fact that Hilton never came anywhere near here; he did, however, visit valleys in modern Pakistan on the Indus that seem to fit the bill, though none of the clearly Tibetan Buddhist ideology of the book could have come from there.

A common theory is that Hilton imagined the place based on the writings of Joseph Rock, an Austrian explorer who was about as swashbuckling as botanists get. Rock spent years in Yunnan, wrote at length about valleys and mountains in the area, and his work was probably available to Hilton. Even then, though, Rock wrote about a lot of different places in Yunnan: the Meili Snow Mountain, further northeast on the border of Tibet proper, is actually a better fit with the valley and mountain Hilton described.

A further twist is that my guide, a Buddhist, reckons the word Shangri-La appears in texts as long ago as 1400 years, and wasn’t invented by Hilton at all. It would hardly be surprising: the most literal translation of Shangri-La would be Mountain Pass – plenty of those in Yunnan and Tibet – while another is Moon and Sun in the Heart.

The local tourist industry now says that the true Shangri-La experience requires you to take a cable car up the Shika Snow Mountain, and that the view from here fits with the valley contained in the book. Naturally, it’s impossible to know. But then again, does it matter?

After all, the cable car takes you up past pink azaleas nestled in the snow, to a mountain topped by prayer flags where the view shows you eight holy mountains, and a lake where legend says a rhino emerges when the moon is full. At certain times of year you can look back and see the grassland at the foot of the mountain dyed red by stelleras flowers, cattle grazing amid the colour.

It’s beautiful, and that’s the point. Maybe it’s the place from an 80-year-old book, and maybe it’s not. But either way, it is stunning and peaceful, and that, after all, is what Shangri-La is all about.

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