Reflections on China Trip – Volume 5: Yes, Virginia, There is a Shangri-La

Visit to Shangri-La. . .

Shangri-La’s first appearance was as a fictional paradise in James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon”, a novel that caught the world’s imagination in 1939.  (Hilton also wrote “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, a much better book.)  Shangri-la was populated with monks, Himalayan beauties and citizens who live for hundreds of years in the mountain air; it was completely fictional.  Like “Catch-22”, the word has become so ubiquitous in English that we forget that it didn’t exist until an author invented it.

So, Shangri-La didn’t exist, or so I would have bet, but I was behind the times: There is in fact a Shangri-La.  It is a small (by Chinese standards) Chinese-Tibetan city located 10,000 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in western Yunnan province.  I would have won my bet in 2001 because it was only in 2002 that the town of Zhongdian changed its name to Shangri-La to capitalize on all the visitors to China who wanted to visit that mountain paradise.  Now, thanks to the genius of modern marketing and a certain Chinese flexibility as to history, they can.

I can’t vouch for longevity of Shangri-La’s citizens, but I can vouch for Himalayan beauties, mountain vistas, frosty air, Buddhist temples filled with scarlet-robed monks, yak steaks and friendly people with exotic customs. Our guide told us that a friend of his had run over a rare snow leopard.  In the best Chinese tradition he took it home and had it for dinner. monks It was cold there. The last night we wore coats and gloves at dinner as the restaurant was  heated only by a small charcoal stove and any heat had to get past a gaggle of Chinese to reach us, which it didn’t. In case you’re thinking of warming up with a hot shower, hotel warning: At that altitude,  long, hot showers may result in oxygen deprivation and fainting. It was the first time I ever got out of breath napping.

On the way to the hotel we passed a group of men by the road looking at a bonfire. I wondered aloud, why, since it was so cold and wood so scarce, they didn’t take the wood home to heat their houses.  “Ah,” said our guide, Hwang, “they are making a cremation”.

And so we bid good-bye to China.  Perhaps we’ll meet again one day.

But I digress. . .

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