The name evokes an earthly paradise, a Buddhist utopia. It was the name Franklin Roosevelt gave to what we now know as Camp David, though the current White House resident doesn’t think so highly of it, displaying his normal degree of class in a January interview when he called it “nice.”
“You’d like it. You know how long you’d like it? For about 30 minutes.” Really classy.
At any rate, Shangri-La was the fictional setting for James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon and while it’s not well read these days the name has endured. And though it was fictional, various Chinese locales claimed that they were the inspiration for his novel. In late 2001, though, the city of Zhongdian one upped the other contenders by changing it’s name to Shangri-La. And so the tourists came.
Actually, tourists had come before and continue to come because of the lovely old town, pleasantly cool summer climate, and a temple that includes what is allegedly the world’s largest prayer wheel.
One of the first things I noticed was the altitude. We were staying at a hotel maybe 20 minutes from the old town and I was surprisingly winded during the walk. We’d just finished hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, of course, so I thought maybe I was just tired from that until I checked the app on my phone that shows altitude and discovered that we were 10,800 feet above sea level. Well, that explains things.
The other quick observation was just how different Shangri-La (née Zhongdian) is from what we’d experienced up to this point in Yunnan. It’s only a couple hours north of the Gorge, but it was as though we had suddenly moved into Tibet’s orbit more than Kunming’s or the rest of Yunnan’s. This just felt like we’d reached the west with wide streets, measurably colder climate, and surrounding mountains.
We’d originally planned three or even four days in Shangri-La but cut it back to just two days so we could avoid forecast rains on the hike; thus we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the town. That was probably OK as there really wasn’t that much to see. The old town is beautiful, but much of it isn’t that old: a fire in 2014 wiped out about half the buildings there. They’ve done a remarkable job of rebuilding and maintaining the historic feel of the place, but it seemed as though a lot of the newly constructed replacements were empty. They got the infrastructure back but now they have to fill it all up.
There was one beautiful temple in the city, on the edge of the old town, and we enjoyed poking around. And there’s a monastery maybe an hour’s walk outside of town that’s supposed to be beautiful. On our second day we were going to go out there in the morning, before a mid-afternoon flight to Chengdu. As we were leaving the hotel and watching a group of local people in beautiful and colorful native costume arriving for a wedding or something Mark missed a step and did a total face plant on the sidewalk. One second he was walking with me and the next second he was flat on the pavement. Fortunately there was no permanent damage, but he sprained his ankle and thus that was the end of our idea of walking out to the monastery or doing anything else before the flight, for that matter.
And thus we close out our three weeks in Yunnan Province. It’s been remarkable, often even stunning. It’s possible there are more beautiful areas of China and more interesting places for tourists to go but if so I can’t wait to find them. From here we fly to Chengdu and then on to Shanghai before heading north to Japan. This has really renewed our interest in traveling in China and, in Mark’s case, studying Chinese. He thinks that with another three months he could learn to read Chinese pretty well. So who knows, we may spend more time back here in the coming years than I would have ever imagined.