The Way to Shangri-la? (Video)

Gossip, Shangri-la
Gossip: Dukezong, China © Russell Johnson

The ancient town of Dukezong in Yunnan Province, China was destroyed by fire this month. More than 232 houses were lost and hundreds of families displaced. Dukezong was an historical centerpiece of a region China renamed Shangri-La in an effort to attract tourists. I shot a video that has a few scenes from the daily life of Dukezong, before the fire, and what is now still a real wonder, the wilds surrounding it.

So, how do you get to Shangri-la?  Frank Capra hung a right on California’s Coastal Highway just below Ventura and motored up to Ojai, the backdrop for his 1937 movie “Lost Horizons.” The story’s author, James Hilton, on the other hand, headed north through California’s Central Valley to the base of Mt. Shasta. In an interview, Hilton said the tiny town of Weaverville was the place that spoke “Shangri-la” to him.

But the Shangri-la of Capra’s snow machine and Hilton’s imagination is a valley hidden amidst the peaks and wooly yaks of the Tibetan Plateau and China lays claim to that: the real estate and now the name.

So I sit on the balcony of my hotel, sipping butter tea, overlooking this new, Chinese Shangri-la: fields of barley, grazing yaks and dzos (yak/cow hybrids), white stupas with fluttering prayer flags and, if I crane my neck a bit, oh my a parking lot with tourist vans.

Stupa Shangri-la© Russell Johnson

In 2001, Zhongdian County in northern Yunnan Province renamed itself Xiang Ge Li La (sound it out) hanging its claim on the Hilton book. Hilton never came here but he may have been inspired by National Geographic accounts of Joseph Rock, a flamboyant biologist who worked nearby in the 1920s. This branding exercise has put the most culturally and biologically-diverse place in China on the tourist map, for both enjoying and, if not treated right, trampling to death.

This Shangri-la is Tibet-lite.  It is at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, not on it, which has some distinct advantages: instead of howling winds and hardscrabble, it has temperate weather, rivers, lakes, wildlife, fall foliage and wildflowers in the spring. It is near the top of the trade route that extends through Southeast Asia and is still a place where tribes gather. I went to the market in the ancient town of Dukezong and found not only Tibetans and Han Chinese but Yi, Naxi and Lisu, No problem telling them apart. This is one of the few places left in the world where people still wear tribal dress daily, not just drag it out for weddings and tourist shows: Yi women don black flying-nun hats the size of kites, Tibetans sport knit headdresses of green, yellow and a not-of-this-world fluorescent pink. The color of the costume signifies motherhood, grandmotherhood or whether one is “available.” And every evening ever since the government loosened its rules about people gathering in groups, hundreds of people, young and old, available or not, all of these ethnic tribes, have turned out in the village square to engage to line dance, sway arm in arm together.

Mini Potala
Songzanlin Temple Photo: © Russell Johnson

This branded verison of Shangri-la has a pint-sized Potala, a small working palace that looks sort of like the famous one in Llasa. I spotted a forbidden likeness of the forbidden Dali Lama in a small anteroom.  The delicacy of the Songzanlin Lamasery, built in 1679, symbolizes what worries me about this place. Bus parking lots spread out below it to accomodate the Red Army of Chinese tourists eager to spend their yuan on the once-forbidden pleasure of travel. I doubt that this little palace will accommodate more than 100 tourists at a time.

Across the valley, the old town area of Dukezong was being restored perhaps a bit too perfectly. Already every other shop sold  the same souvenirs, some imported from outside the region. Shangri-la is no longer remote. My cellphone works better in here than it does in San Francisco.

The town may be gone, but was only a small part of Shangri-la.

I took a couple of excursions into the nearby mountains on newly-paved roads, above tiny villages in Ojai-like valleys, under towers of rock and snow with names like Jade Crowned Peak. Spectacular, for sure. But, at the end of one 45-minute drive I was dropped at a staging area where I boarded a bus that took me to about two miles to a path leading to a lake. “Nice lake,” was my impression, like Colorado. Another natural attraction morphs into a cliché tourist spot. Drive there, take a picture with a yak, and go back. In all honesty, however, these controls are needed as the tourist masses arrive.

Yak at Bitahai Lake © Russell Johnson

But, get off the tourist route and you will find great natural beauty here. The vigorously-protected Three Parallel Rivers Area near just to the south was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. The gorges of the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween rivers are, in places, almost two miles deep and provide the habitat for a wide array of wildlife including some rare, endangered species including the blue sheep, the Bengal tiger and the fabled snow leopard.

Banyan Tree Ringha There are also places to stay here that may be considered destinations in themselves ranging from a yurt to the reasonable, comfortable Gyalthang Dzong Hotel, to the sybaritic  ($400-900 night) Banyan Tree Ringha which offers a view of Xiang Ge Li La from the balcony of your own two-level lodge, a rebuilt traditional Tibetan home with five-star amenities.

And that’s where I sit, tempted to pick up my cellphone and call, email, or instant message the office and gloat:  “You’ll never guess where I am.”



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