China’s new tourist attraction: “Shangri-La”

A dusty logging town tries to recreate itself in the image of the "Lost Horizon" utopia. Silliness ensues

Topics: GlobalPost, China, Shangri-La, tourism, James Hilton, Lost Horizon,

China's new tourist attraction: “Shangri-La” Zhongdian in China's Yunnan province (Credit: Wikipedia Commons/EL GIMP)
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post

Editor’s note: “Manufacturing: Shangri-La” is a three-part series on a Tibetan hamlet turned tourist trap. Read Part 2:Profit quest imperils one of world’s most stunning landscapes; Part 3: China’s Shangri-La for minorities.

SHANGRI-LA, China — The fabled land of Shangri-La is a “delightfully favored place,” where monks live for hundreds of years, in the shadow of a “dazzling pyramid,” the mountain Karakal. The air has a “dream-like texture.” Every breath yields a “deep anesthetizing tranquility.”

That, at least, is how Shangri-La is described in “Lost Horizon,” British author James Hilton’s classic 1933 novel.

“If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation,” one of Hilton’s beatific monks says. “We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds.”

Hilton’s mythical land is a far cry from this real-life Chinese village of Shangri-La: a dusty, dingy upstart that is flinging moderation to the winds to become a Disneyesque tourist trap.

China’s experiment with manufacturing its very own Shangri-La began in 2001, when the logging town of Zhongdian — a remote, predominately Tibetan village standing on an 11,000-foot plateau in China’s southwestern Yunnan province — decided to change its name.

The move was mostly economic: Beijing had banned logging up-country in Yunnan after a series of massive floods along the Yangtze River. Though other towns competed fiercely for the right to rename themselves — and arguably had better reasons — Zhongdian prevailed.

Hence this once-isolated village became China’s first “official” Shangri-La.

In the decade since, Zhongdian has transformed itself completely. It may not be exactly what Hilton imagined when he penned his classic novel.

Visitors making the four-hour tour-bus ride from Lijiang drive past stray yaks and bucolic Tibetan homesteads, before being greeted incongruously with billboards advertising high-end red wines. A gaudy, 78-foot-tall Buddhist prayer wheel has risen over the square, a stone’s throw from a renovated People’s Liberation Army museum.

Shop after shop peddle tourist trinkets and fake tiger pelts. Where mud houses once stood, cheesy art galleries, restaurants, hostels, and even a cupcake shop now stand in “Old Town.” Signs tout yak burgers and Tibetan clothes for rent. A self-described reggae café has a cannabis leaf painted in the colors of the Jamaican flag.

“Eighty percent of [Old Town] was knocked down and rebuilt to look Tibetan,” said Jason Lees, owner of The Raven, the longest-running business in Old Town. The Raven serves as a watering hole for locals and the small, hard-drinking community of American and British expatriates in town.

An Englishman with matted hair and smoke-cured voice, Lees moved to Shangri-La a decade ago to escape the tourist hordes that had overwhelmed Lijiang, four hours away.

He’s profoundly ambivalent about the change. On the one hand, his business caters to tourists. On the other, as Shangri-La’s tourist sector has grown, wealthy developers and investors have moved in, driving up the rents.

“A culture changes to sell itself once the money comes in,” he said. “This used to be a special place. It used to be more open-minded, multicultural. Once it started to repackage itself as Tibetan, as a simplified version of itself, it changed.”

Even the 300-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside town has been turned into a cash cow. Tickets cost $15 each. In many respects, it feels like a theme park: Inside, groups of 25 to 30 tourists line up to deposit cash in a box in exchange for a blessing from a seated, desultory monk. Guides in Tibetan costumes wearing wireless mics dawdle by the entrance, yawning. At the top of the temple, a stand sells ice cream and moon pies. Behind the main monastery building, a towering crane is constructing a large additional temple.

Such changes depress longtime residents like Kevin Skalsky, who fondly recalls when Zhongdian had a wild-west feel.

You Might Also Like

He and his wife moved to the city 13 years ago as one of the only non-Chinese couples in the area. Two Americans from Washington state, they raised four children here — but now they’re hoping to leave, and move to a more remote village several miles away. Over a dinner of yak meat, he bemoaned the commoditization of Zhongdian.

“It’s been unrelenting,” said Skalsky, who runs an outdoor adventure company that takes tourists out on motorcycles, Jeeps, skis and kayaks. He has long, gray hair, a powerful handshake, and a West Coast drawl reminiscent of “the Dude” in “The Big Lebowski.”

Of course, some residents see it differently: Zhongdian may not have become Shangri-La in reality, but it did become a lot richer. While a number of locals complain that most new businesses are owned by Han Chinese, some Tibetans are also making out very well.

One is local entrepreneur Dakpa Kelden, who welcomes the influx. A Tibetan who studied for years in India, Kelden is sometimes called “the king of Shangri-La” because of his extensive contacts and thriving new businesses. We spoke on the balcony of his new hotel. Sporting a beautifully tailored khaki jacket and a new iPhone, he switched fluently between Tibetan, Mandarin, and Indian-accented English. He said he had “exactly six minutes” to talk.

Founder of the Shangri-La Association of Cultural Preservation, Kelden sees immense opportunities for Tibetans in Shangri-La, though he laments that most tourists come to the village for only one day. Rooms at yet another boutique hotel he is building range from $128 a night to $240 for a suite.

“Tourism for us is a great opportunity,” he said. “Now the problem is we have mass tourism. They come and want to take pictures — they don’t want the experience.”

Across China, many tourist sites are facing the same mass tourism issues, as for the first time millions of Chinese have enough income and time to afford travel around their own country. China as a whole is seeing a surge in pleasure-seekers and day-trippers. In 2010, Chinese took more than 2.1 billion domestic trips and generated more than $200 billion in revenue, according to China’s National Tourism Administration.

In the Chinese popular imagination, Yunnan province, with its soaring mountains and profuse wildlife, is a must-see destination, like Yellowstone or Yosemite for Americans. While rich in biodiversity and in minority cultures, Yunnan has long been one of China’s poorest provinces, with a GDP-per-capita income one-quarter of that in Shanghai.

Now Yunnan’s government is courting tourism as the cure to its economic ills. Given the staggering growth, the tacky Shangri-La of today may soon look quaint.

“I don’t know what kind of experience you’ll get when there are three times as many tourists as today,” says Ed Grumbine, a professor of botany who has spent the last several years studying in Yunnan. “Lijiang is the classic example. It’s grown from 3 million to 10 million [visitors] a year, and there’s no stopping it. Most foreigners would go to Lijiang, and unless they’re really into the Walt Disney experience, wouldn’t like it. [But] the average Chinese tourist is much more accepting.”

Meanwhile, the real-world Shangri-La faces a 21st century existential conundrum: The authentic charm that the village sells as a tourist draw is rapidly changing the traditions that underpin that charm. Even the attitudes of native groups are changing.

“Younger people no longer wear the traditional outfits, now they see the city people and want to dress like them,” says Yang Qiong, 27, a Naxi minority who works as project manager at the Yunnan Mountain Heritage Center, a non-profit devoted to preserving local culture. “Some wear high heels with their traditional outfits.”

She spent several minutes outlining the ways that her organization is creating sustainable, tourist-friendly handicrafts — beekeeping, knitting — but at last admitted that in some ways residents refused to adapt to the change.

“We all still call it Zhongdian,” Yang said. “Shangri-La is too long a name.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>