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Shangri-La :: Story

A modified version of the following story appeared in NUVO magazine


Caught between Mr Rock and a mythical place in Sichuan and Yunnan

text and photos by Michael Buckley

SHANGRI-LA: a remote paradise where the ageing process has slowed down, where people do not succumb to disease, and where goldmines take care of any cash-flow problems. Shangri-La lies at the frontier of Tibet: a monastery with mixed Chinese and Tibetan features, perched on the flanks of a towering pyramidal snowcap. A monastery stocking a superb collection of books, music and Chinese art—and one that allows the luxury of ample time for their contemplation.

The High Lama of Shangri-La is a wizened Capuchin monk from Luxembourg, who stumbled into the valley more than 200 years ago and is still alive to tell the tale. The people of Blue Moon Valley are stocky Tibetans in sheepskins, fur hats and yakskin boots, but there's a definite Chinese touch to the décor of Shangri-La—from blue Sung ceramics to green porcelain baths. And this, of course, is all fiction. Shangri-La is an impossible composite that sprang from the imagination of British writer James Hilton—whose novel Lost Horizon appeared in 1933. Hilton never set foot in Asia—for Tibetan material, he got no further than the British Library in London.

No sooner did Hilton create this paradise than he seems to have lost control of it. He was quickly summoned to Hollywood to assist in making a movie version of Lost Horizon, released in 1937—a blockbuster that spread the fame of Shangri-La far and wide (the movie was dubbed in Chinese in 1938). Were Hilton alive today, he would be astonished at the uses the Shangri-La logo has been put to—from beach resorts to a hotel chain.

Hilton claimed in his book that Shangri-La would not be found on any map, but that has prevented mountain realms from Ladakh to Bhutan from staking claims. For over 70 years, debate has raged over the exact location, claiming the author was inspired by a real model.

The Chinese have been rather slow off the mark, but they've done so in spectacular style. In 1995, rumours started circulating about the "discovery" of Shangri-La in southwest China. This snowballed into a major campaign. In 2001, the town of Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan opened Diqing Shangri-La Airport, with a runway that can handle Boeing jets. In March 2002, Zhongdian County was officially renamed Shangri-La County by special decree from Beijing. This promotion of "Shangri-La paradise" is a ploy to attract Chinese tourists from the east. And it seems to work: the number of tourists to this region jumped from 42,000 in 1995 to 1.06 million in 2000, with tourism-related income rocketing from US$1.5 million to US$82 million in this period.

With money like that at stake, dogfights have broken out between a dozen places in southwest China vying for the Shangri-La crown. So bitter have disputes become that another solution has been proposed: the creation of "China Shangri-La Ecological Tourist Zone", embracing all the contenders from the highlands of Sichuan and Yunnan. This zone is a chunk of territory approaching the size of Switzerland.

INTRIGUED BY THE HYPE, I set off to see the contenders for myself—well, three of them. The first leg of the journey involves a two-day bus trip from Chengdu over a high alpine route to the town of Daocheng, gateway to the Konkaling range. This sparsely populated region is home to yak herders who live in triple-storied stone farmhouses.

In Daocheng, the local tour office offers brochures and photobooks in Chinese and English. The glossy literature is vague when it comes to connections with Shangri-La, rambling on about Joseph Rock, an American explorer—elsewhere referred to as "Joseph Lark" or "Doctor Lock". In fact, all the Shangri-La claims in southwest China go back to Joseph Rock. That much quickly becomes clear to me: I am following in the footsteps of Doctor Rock. Indeed, he's my guide: failing to find any decent descriptions of this area, I'm carrying the July 1931 National Geographic issue that details Rock's expedition to the sacred Konkaling range—a hefty 65 pages of text and photos.

This eccentric Austrian-American plant hunter arrived in southwest China in 1922. For nearly three decades, he explored the uncharted ranges of southwest China, collecting rare fauna and flora, indulging in photography, and documenting the lives of the Tibetan and Naxi ethnic groups. Along the way he produced ten articles for National Geographic, some of which may have inspired James Hilton. The link has never been proved: when two American researchers caught up with ageing actress Jane Wyatt, the last surviving member of the movie Lost Horizon who'd met Hilton, she told them Hilton hinted that his inspiration derived in part from Rock's articles. However, Hilton used a number of different sources, and Rock wrote about several lofty mountain regions in China's southwest.

The next morning I pile into a jeep with some fellow Shangri-La seekers—Chinese tourists—and head for Yading Nature Reserve, touted as lying at the heart of Shangri-La. A kidney-jarring ride brings us to the fortress-like monastery of Gongaling, with over 300 monks. After a lunch-stop here, we push on to a tented camp outside Yading village.

Yading Nature Reserve occupies close on a thousand square kilometres of rugged terrain: gushing streams, luxuriant forests of larch, pine, cypress, fir and oak, and majestic snowcaps with cascading glaciers and odd-coloured glacial lakes. And this day, the beauty is magnified because everything is blanketed in fresh snow.

We rent ponies for the 15-kilometre ride to a tented camp near the base of the sacred peaks, moving in a long caravan, dismounting at photogenic spots. Joseph Rock would've marvelled at the high-tech equipment of the wealthy Chinese tourists—their digital cameras, video cameras and knock-off North Face jackets.

Rock was the first Westerner to lay eyes on this region and the first to photograph the sacred Konkaling peaks. A number of explorers had failed to penetrate the region—due to brutal weather conditions and the menace of bandits. The bandits included 400 monks from Konkaling Gompa (Snow Mountain Monastery) who used to rob pilgrims blind and then return to their quiet meditations—apparently not a contradiction in these parts. In mid-1928, the resourceful Dr Rock enlisted the help of the King of Muli (also the Head Lama of Muli Monastery), who dispatched stern missives to the bandit chiefs telling them to back off while Rock explored. The former kingdom of Muli is itself another Shangri-La candidate—the subject of an earlier article by Rock.

Rock rode into the Konkaling region with a posse of Naxi and Tibetan bodyguards, armed to the hilt. Torrential rain left the peaks obscured by cloud. When the clouds finally parted, the panorama knocked him out: "In the cloudless sky before me rose the peerless pyramid of Jambeyang, the finest mountain my eyes ever beheld." Rock was pumping up the prose for National Geographic: there are plenty of peaks that rival Jambeyang in the Himalayas. Still, Jambeyang—just under 6,000 metres high—is a conical classic, with razor-edged snow precipices leading to the summit. For mountaineers, it presents a tantalizing challenge: it has never been scaled, though expedition attempts have been launched. From a viewpoint we admire stupendous panoramas of Jambeyang and Chanadorje, two of the sacred peaks.

IN A MOUNTAIN RANGE just to the west lies Deqin, another prime Shangri-La contender. On the map, Deqin looks like a short hop from Daocheng, but these are remote mountain regions: getting there requires two full days of winding and switchbacking by jeep on rough roads, crossing the line into Yunnan Province.

Welcome to Shangri-La! proudly proclaims the map of town of Zhongdian, the capital of Shangri-La County. Nobody with marbles intact could mistake Zhongdian for Shangri-La: it's a bland Chinese city full of concrete and karaoke. But Zhongdian is being spruced up with construction of neo-Tibetan buildings in preparation for its role as gateway to Shangri-La—whose features are widely scattered around the county, and detailed in an avalanche of Chinese books, photo-albums and videos.

A number of businesses in Zhongdian blithely use the Shangri-La logo: restaurants and karaoke bars covet the name. Souvenirs from Shangri-La? You can buy a bottle of Shangeli-la Red, a wine made in Yunnan—based on a vintage supposedly concocted by French Jesuit missionaries. Or smoke Shangri-La-brand cigarettes, also made in Yunnan. There was, after all, some smoking going on in Lost Horizon, which noted that the valley of Shangri-La grew a fine brand of tobacco. The plethora of Shangri-La brandnames is highly alarming to the Shangri-La Hotel group, Asia's largest luxury hotel chain, based in Hong Kong. Delicate negotiations have taken place between the trademark owners and Chinese officials, but "Shangri-La" has entered the English dictionary as a synonym for paradise, so the trademark is hard to establish.

Deep chanting resonates from the main prayer hall at Songzhanlin, a monastic citadel just north of Zhongdian. With over 700 monks, it's the largest monastery in Yunnan, and a place that could easily have sprung from the pages of Lost Horizon—except that it lies in the middle of rolling farmland. The imposing snowcaps collaged into Zhongdian's Shangri-La brochures lie 200 kilometres miles north, near the tiny frontier town of Deqin. At dawn, the peaks of Deqin are lit up like candles, one after another, by the rising sun. It's an awesome spectacle. Nestled among the dozen 6,000-metre snowcaps is Mount Kawagebo, Yunnan's highest peak—and one that has never been climbed. Far below, you can see the Mekong River coursing and villages dotting the landscape. The bewitching vista—with icy pyramidal peak, and green valley and river far below—could easily serve as cover shot for James Hilton's novel.

At sunrise, Chinese tourists pour out of buses at Feilaisi viewpoint, jostling for prime photo vantage points. Others gather at wayside shrines and throw rice in the air or tie on prayer flags. All part of "Tibet Chic": Chinese tourists think it is a badge of cool to follow such rituals. But there are no Tibetans in sight. Probably the last people to realize they are living in the heart of Shangri-La are the ethnic Tibetans. The word "Shangri-La" was made up by James Hilton: it has no meaning in Tibetan except that "La" means mountain pass.

COMING DOWN TO EARTH: starting the grand descent off the Tibetan plateau. Down, down, down from Deqin to the ancient town of Lijiang, in southern Yunnan. Lijiang is another candidate for Shangri-La, but the ethnic presence here is the Naxi, a Tibetan-related group. In Lijiang's Old Quarter, everything is run by Naxi women in exquisite costume—embroidered white chemise, maroon velvet waistcoat and ruffled white skirt. Naxi society is matrilineal: though a compromised version is practiced today, Naxi women still make family decisions, control finances and do much of the work, while men idle time away with poetry, music and calligraphy.

Because the Naxi follow a handful of old Dongba wizards, there are no large Tibetan-style temples in Lijiang, which does not fit the Shangri-La profile. Nevertheless, Lijiang's Old Quarter is a splendid labyrinth of weathered wooden shophouses and guesthouses with tiled roofs—and a World Heritage Site. Twisting through it are narrow cobblestone alleys, stone bridges and scores of canals. By night, the place is thronged with Chinese tourists flocking to eat at cozy restaurants and to see performances of Naxi music and dance.

The Naxis lay claim to the oldest dance score in the world—and the world's oldest orchestra. And (a touch of Shangri-La?) the world's oldest musicians. Many are in their 80s, because these octogenarians are the only ones who can recall the music. During the Cultural Revolution, the music and culture of the Naxis was banned.

Xuan Ke, a Naxi musicologist, spent 21 years in jail for the crime of trying to preserve Naxi culture—and is now hailed as a hero for reviving it. That's not all he revived. Xuan Ke is credited with starting the Shangri-La craze in southwest China. After reading Hilton's book, he declared the place was definitely where his mother lived—which was Deqin. On second thoughts, he also decided the book reminded him of his hometown, Lijiang. Then the Joseph Rock link to James Hilton was forged. Cementing that connection is a translation of Lost Horizon into Chinese in 2000 by a Naxi scholar, with Rock's photos gracing the foreword.

Joseph Rock spent all his spare time documenting the strange culture and language of the Naxi. He wrote the definitive work on the Naxi, but did not publish a single paper on Chinese plants. Which is very odd, considering that he was mainly funded for plant hunting. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, southwest China was a magnet for plant hunters, keen to discover new ornamental species and medicinal plants for export to eager growers in the West. Self-trained botanist Rock (the "Doctor" title appears to have been self-donated) sent thousands of plant specimens and seed batches from China to the West. Two plants were even named after him.

Prime hunting grounds were the slopes of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, 30 kilometres from Lijiang. The mountain's micro-climate hosts a huge range of flora, depending on altitude. There are 50 specimens of azalea, 60 kinds of primrose, five species of camellia—and over 600 medicinal herbs in the Lijiang area. Today, getting to the upper reaches of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is a snap: buses unload Chinese tourists at the foot of the 5,596-metre peak. From there, the highest cable car in Asia (nearly three kilometres long) whips them up to a viewing platform at 4,600 metres. The wiser tourists rent down parkas and small canisters of oxygen. The unwiser ones lurch around in suits and platform shoes. For most, it's a thrilling first encounter with snow and ice.

This peak functions as the model for Shangri-La, in Lijiang's claim. Lijiang's Naxi Museum houses a special Shangri-La Salon explaining the town's links to the legend, naturally channeled via the medium of Dr Rock. Located at Yuhu, on the outskirts of Lijiang is a small museum housed in Rock's former villa: it showcases a display of his photos, his gear and his rifles. A sepia print shows Rock draped in a Tibetan sheepskin cloak, with fox-fur hat and Tibetan boots. Another shows him in a dapper suit, which he wore to a regal reception from a local official or fiefdom ruler—arriving in style in a sedan chair, with an armed escort. Rock revelled in his celebrity status in these parts: he was a short-tempered reclusive loner, but in this remote part of China, he was in his element—his wanderlust and sense of adventure were more than sated.

Close by, I come across a large billboard pointing the way to Rock's villa. The Chinese script may be more coherent, but the English on the billboard reads:


Having done that for the past month, I feel no closer to solving the riddle of Shangri-La: there's a lot of garbled hype attached to the various claims. The novel is, after all, fiction—based on a composite model. In any case, the quest has lead me to some beautiful mountain ranges: Shangri-La sentinels or not, they are definitely stunning. Did Hilton draw on Rock's adventures to craft the Utopian legend of Shangri-La? The answer to that question lies with James Hilton alone—and he can't be consulted because he passed away in 1954. Joseph Rock died in 1962. So the case will most likely remain a mystery—like Shangri-La itself.


This material © copyright Michael Buckley. All rights reserved.