CHINA: Shangri-La la land

We got to Shangri-La in the late afternoon extremely hungry (we set off from Meili Mountain Lookout village around 10am, and all the places we visited were totally secluded). For a special request by Michao, here’s a map of our trip so far:

So the first thing on the agenda just after getting to our hostel was to EAT. But, damn our hostel was really amazing. I stalled the group to take few pics, take a look:

::: When your hostel turn out to be more amazing than in the pictures :O :::

::: Sleeping in these amazing settings cost us only 20SGD per room! :::

Honestly, I’ve been to Shangri-La chain ***** hotel in Thailand for so much more money but this tiny hostel in actual Shangri-La was so much more amazing ūüėõ

::: The main Temple that we could see from our window ::: 

::: Yak! :::

We spent less than one day in this place. We arrived in the late afternoon and our plane to Kunming was already the next morning. Even so, it was nice to walk the streets of the cold town and try to compare it with its origin…

::: Hipster Cafe- with WiFi and waffles- first sign that Shangri-La might not be the tranquil, remote monastery that I’ve read about in the book after all… :::

::: Charming streets of Shangri-La :::

:::: A view from a restaurant where we finally had something to eat- believe it or not be we chose… Turkish food ūüėõ :::

::: Shangri-La gets a brand new magical atmosphere by night :::

As you might already noticed- the old town has been transformed into touristic paradise, with souvenir or craft shops and cafe’s/restaurants on every corner. Although undeniably very beautiful, it felt a liiiitle bit artificial.¬†Surprise surprise – the mysterious Shangri-La is actually¬†Zhongdian, Chinese city which changed its name only over a dozen years earlier to … yup- attract the tourists. Where did this legendary name come from and why it is so legendary? Is this town really Shangri-La? Let me tell you in few paragraphs and few pictures climbing up the stairs of this colorfully illuminated temple below* –>

Imagine an earthly paradise, high in the¬†inaccessible mountains where people live peacefully amid spectacular scenery and never grow old‚Ķ In this utopian setting some wise Buddhist monks safeguard the finest aspects of the world’s culture while renouncing its violence and materialism. This is the Shangri-La that writer James Hilton created in his novel “Lost Horizon,” in 1933. The main character, a¬† British diplomat, found himself in¬†a mysterious valley in the the high mountains against¬†his will, but soon realized a unique opportunity to finally find peace from the conflicts of the world.

Now try to picture the time of the book’s publication – the world had just gone through the senseless slaughter of World War I and was experiencing economic collapse and mass unemployment following the Wall Street crash of 1929. It was also a time of the emerging dictators and rising militarism of Hitler and Mussolini, with the prospect of an even greater war on the horizon. No wonder audiences took so gladly to an escapist fantasy about a lost world of peace, civilization and beauty.

Meanwhile, in the late 1920s and early 1930s Tibet was still an almost mythical place for most Westerners. Very few people had ever visited the “roof of the world,” and its borders with India and Nepal were only just being explored by the expeditions. Many people still believed that Tibetan lamas had supernatural powers, could levitate and read the minds of others or act as oracles to predict the future. ¬†“Lost Horizon” became an instant bestseller and was turned into a successful movie by the legendary director Frank Capra. The appeal of Shangri-La was so strong that it stood the test of time: there is now a hotel chain of the same name, the movie has been re-made and the book remains in print.

In the last decades there has also been a growing interest in tracking down the “real” Shangri-La. In 2001 the county of¬†Zhongdian¬†(Gyalthang in Tibetan) in Yunnan has gone so far as to officially rename itself as¬†Xianggelila (eng. Shangri-La).¬†They didn’t mind that¬† the book’s description is vague nor that several areas of Southwest China in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces claimed they were the inspiration for the Shangri-La…

So, what do we know from the book? Only that Shangri-La is a fertile valley, cut off from the outside world by high mountains,presumably somewhere in or near Tibet, and is a home for mysterious a lamasery. In the book, the valley of Shangri-La is dominated by a mountain peak, Karakal. These names already give some clues as to the inspiration for Shangri-La. Many have already suggested that Karakal may be a place on Karakoram, the mountainous eastern Himalayan area that was just opening up to western explorers in the 1930s.

But the funny thing is that Hilton himself never been to Tibet and for the main source of inspiration for Shangri-la, we should turn to the writings of the Austrian-American explorer, Joseph Rock. At the time when Hilton was writing “Lost Horizon”, this eccentric botanist had just published a series of fantastic accounts of his travels in Southwest China, in the National Geographic magazine. Using a village outside Lijiang as his base, Rock made lengthy expeditions to far-flung corners of Yunnan and Sichuan, spending months at a time collecting plants, taking photographs, map making and recording the lifestyles of the many different ethnic minorities living in these remote highlands. His accounts of travels made him a minor celebrity in the West.

There are many parallels between Rock’s factual descriptions and Hilton’s fictional prose. On a journey, Rock described the sheer overpowering sense of isolation he felt when travelling through some remote communities:

“No outlook in any direction!” he wrote in his National Geographic article of 1929.¬†“Here people live and die without the slightest knowledge of the outside world! How oppressive to be buried alive in these vast canyon systems! Or are they happier for it?”.

“The scenery hereabouts is overwhelming grand. Probably its like cannot be found elsewhere in the world for centuries it may remain a closed land, save to such privileged few as care to crawl like ants through its canyons of tropical heat and up its glaciers and passes in blinding snowstorms, carrying their food with them…” *

*similar to us on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek (minus the snowstorms;) )

But finding a single location on the map from Rock’s articles is not obvious. Take the sacred mountain of Karakal, for example. In “Lost Horizon,” Hilton describes it in terms similar to those used by Joseph Rock for his first sight of the Konkaling mountain of Jambeyang, in Sichuan Province. Interestingly, in his account of the Konkaling area Joseph Rock also mentions a remote monastery that is cut off from the outside world. However, the reason had less to do with its physical isolation than the local bandits, who despite being pious worshippers at the temple would murder anyone who dared set foot on their territory. Other mountain mentioned in Joseph Rock’s expedition reports is the now famous Mount Kawakarpo (also known as Meili Snow Mountain, that we could see by ourselves). The area around Kawakarpo contains another essential component of the “Lost Horizon” story: French priest. In Shangri-La, the lamasery is presided over by a high lama who turns out to be a¬† former French cleric, Pere Perrault. This missionary is said to have stumbled across the isolated community and decided to stay because of his fears of a coming catastrophic world war. In his article on Kawakarpo, Joseph Rock describes how he met a French priest in the remote hamlet of Cizhong, below Mount Kawakarpo. The real life Pere David settled in the mountain village after witnessing the horrors of World War I…

::: The biggest prayer wheel :::

But the place that sums up the atmosphere from the book, if not the physical appearance of Shangri-La, is Muli, in Sichuan –¬†a walled town of Buddhist temples housing about 700 lamas. Rock visited the monastery town of Muli several times in the 1920s and 30s, when it was the de facto capital of an isolated theocratic kingdom. Muli County was presided over by a serene hereditary Tibetan regent, who was at that time regarded as both local king and high lama. Rock became good friends with the ruler of Muli, Chote Chaba, and was bemused by the eccentricities of this wily character. In his conversations with Rock, the king admitted knowing little of the outside world. He asked whether he could ride on his horse to Washington DC, thought that binoculars could see through mountains, and that thunder was caused by dragons roaring in the clouds.¬†The Muli king had also preserved some examples of Western culture that had found their way there. He had a room full of unused photographic equipment, and reportedly showed Rock some picture postcards of nursery rhyme scenes, asking if there were really animals in the West that could sit at tables and talk.

Did Hilton get some inspiration from Rock’s description of Muli? Rock found it to be a peaceful place in the midst of the anarchy and banditry that then existed in western China. The king had done deals with neighbouring bandits, allowing them sanctuary and to pass across his territory unmolested in return for refraining from molesting the citizens of Muli. Today, the Muli Monastery is still there, and reportedly its atmosphere of isolation persists, thanks to lack of¬†¬†major scenic attractions in the form of mountains or lake that could attract tourists.

There are many places in China that bear some resemblance to this lost utopia but the legendary¬†Shangri-La only ever existed in James Hilton’s head. So when it comes to the question if we arrived to the “real” Shangri-La, I must admit that it was far from the book’s descriptions. Nevertheless-¬†¬†I was really glad to see this town and undeniably it is a lovely destination.¬†I wondered though how did it looked like before all the fancy renovations. Maybe a decade ago it was closer to the quite, peaceful¬†Buddhist¬†town?¬†

A free tip: to get a Shangri-La flavor from the book, while in this region,¬† explore remote villages that didn’t have the chance to get modernized…yet.


:::: Michao smile! ::::

::: Home-made Yak yogurt and wine :::

::: A goodbye drink in a nice, freezing-cold bar, before we go back for the night to our lovely freezing-cold hostel:::

In the next episode: One last thing before our flight to Singa! A ‘Stone Forest’ near Kunming, I promise less text this time;)

Adapted from: In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock, Micheal Woodhead


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